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Martel v. Clair

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: March 5, 2012
Case #: 10-1265
Kagan, J., for a unanimous Court.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-1265.pdf

Habeas Corpus: Motions to replace counsel in capital habeas petitions are to be judged by the same "interest of justice" standard as non-capital cases.

Respondent Clair is a California death row inmate. In 1994 Clair commenced federal habeas proceedings, and filed a request for appointment of counsel. After an evidentiary hearing before the District Court in 2004, Clair moved to substitute counsel, because his attorneys were seeking to overturn his death sentence rather than prove his innocence, and because his attorneys had failed to follow up on newly discovered physical evidence. The District Court denied Clair’s habeas petition. Clair appealed both the substitution request and habeas petition, and the Ninth Circuit vacated both denials.

Prior to amendment in 1988, the same standard governed substitution of counsel for both capital and non-capital cases. The 1988 amendment enhanced rights for capital habeas petitioners, and the Court reasoned that Congress would not enhance other rights while making it more difficult for capital prisoners to substitute counsel. The Supreme Court held that the appropriate standard for a motion to substitute counsel in a capital case is the same “interest of justice” standard used in non-capital cases, and that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by denying Clair’s motion.