Martel v. Clair

Decision Date05 March 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–1265.,10–1265.
Citation565 U.S. 648,132 S.Ct. 1276,182 L.Ed.2d 135
Parties Michael MARTEL, Warden, Petitioner v. Kenneth CLAIR.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Ward A. Campbell, Sacramento, CA, for Petitioner.

Seth P. Waxman, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Donald E. DeNicola, Deputy State Solicitor General, Michael P. Farrell, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Barry J.T. Carlton, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Ward A. Campbell, Counsel of Record, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice, Sacramento, CA, for Petitioner.

John R. Grele, Law Offices of John R. Grele, David W. Fermino, San Francisco, CA, Seth P. Waxman, Counsel of Record, Edward C. DuMont, Catherine M.A. Carroll, Aron B. Goetzl, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, New York, NY, for Respondents.

Justice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A federal statute, § 3599 of Title 18, entitles indigent defendants to the appointment of counsel in capital cases, including habeas corpus proceedings. The statute contemplates that appointed counsel may be " replaced ... upon motion of the defendant," § 3599(e), but it does not specify the standard that district courts should use in evaluating those motions. We hold that courts should employ the same "interests of justice" standard that they apply in non-capital cases under a related statute, § 3006A of Title 18. We also hold that the District Court here did not abuse its discretion in denying respondent Kenneth Clair's motion to change counsel.


This case arises from the murder of Linda Rodgers in 1984. Rodgers resided at the home of Kai Henriksen and Margaret Hessling in Santa Ana, California. Clair was a squatter in a vacant house next door. About a week prior to the murder, police officers arrested Clair for burglarizing the Henriksen–Hessling home, relying on information Henriksen had provided. On the night the police released Clair from custody, Hessling returned from an evening out to find Rodgers' dead body in the master bedroom, naked from the waist down and beaten, stabbed, and strangled. Some jewelry and household items were missing from the house. See People v. Clair, 2 Cal.4th 629, 644–647, 7 Cal.Rptr.2d 564, 828 P.2d 705, 713–714 (1992) ; App. to Pet. for Cert. 23–24.

The district attorney charged Clair with Rodgers' murder and sought the death penalty. No forensic evidence linked Clair to the crime; instead, the main evidence against Clair came from his former girlfriend, Pauline Flores. Although she later recanted her testimony, see App. 36–42, Flores stated at trial that she and Clair were walking in the neighborhood on the night of the murder and split up near the Henriksen–Hessling house. When they reunited about an hour later, Flores recounted, Clair was carrying jewelry and other items and had blood on his right hand. According to Flores, Clair explained to her that he had "just finished beating up a woman." Clair, 2 Cal.4th, at 647, 7 Cal.Rptr.2d 564, 828 P.2d, at 714. The prosecution then introduced a tape recording of a talk between Flores and Clair several months after the murder, which Flores had made in cooperation with the police. On that tape, Clair at one point denied committing the murder, but also made several inculpatory statements. For example, when Flores told Clair that she had seen blood on him, he replied "Ain't on me no more" and "They can't prove nothing." App. to Pet. for Cert. 53 (internal quotation marks omitted). And in response to her continued probing, Clair explained "[W]hat you fail to realize, how ... they gonna prove I was there ...? There ain't no ... fingerprints, ain't no ... body seen me go in there and leave out there." Id., at 53–54 (internal quotation marks omitted). The jury convicted Clair and sentenced him to death. The California Supreme Court upheld the verdict, and this Court denied review, Clair v. California, 506 U.S. 1063, 113 S.Ct. 1006, 122 L.Ed.2d 155 (1993).

Clair commenced federal habeas proceedings by filing a request for appointment of counsel, which the District Court granted under § 3599. Clair and his counsel filed an initial petition for habeas relief in 1994 and, after exhausting state remedies, an amended petition the following year. The petition alleged more than 40 claims, involving such matters as jury selection and composition, sufficiency of the evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, nondisclosure of exculpatory materials relating to state witnesses, and ineffectiveness of trial counsel. In the late 1990's, two associates from the firm representing Clair took jobs at the Office of the Federal Public Defender (FPD), and the court substituted that office as counsel of record. The court held an evidentiary hearing on Clair's habeas petition in August 2004, and the parties submitted post-hearing briefs by February 2005. The court subsequently informed the parties that it viewed the briefing "to be complete and d[id] not wish to receive any additional material" about the petition. App. 3–4.

On March 16, 2005, Clair sent a letter to the court stating that the FPD attorneys "no longer ... ha[d][his] best interest at hand" and that he did not want them to continue to represent him. Id., at 24; see id., at 18–25. Clair alleged that the lawyers had repeatedly dismissed his efforts to participate in his own defense. Prior to the evidentiary hearing, Clair wrote, he had become so frustrated with the attorneys that he enlisted a private detective to look into his case. But the lawyers, Clair charged, refused to cooperate with the investigator; they were seeking only to overturn his death sentence, rather than to prove his innocence. As a result, Clair felt that he and his counsel were not "on the same team." Id., at 23.

The District Court responded by asking both parties to address Clair's motion to substitute counsel. See id., at 18. The State noted that "[w]hat the trial court does with respect to appointing counsel is within its discretion, providing the interests of justice are served." Id., at 29. The State further advised the court that "nothing in [Clair's] letter require[d] a change" of counsel because the FPD lawyers had provided appropriate representation and substitution would delay the case. Ibid. Clair replied to the court's request through his FPD attorneys on April 26, 2005. Their letter stated: "After meeting with Mr. Clair, counsel understands that Mr. Clair wants the [FPD] to continue to serve as his counsel in this case at this time." Id., at 27. On the basis of that representation, the court determined that it would "take no further action on the matter at this time." Id., at 33.

But the issue resurfaced just six weeks after the court's decision. On June 16, 2005, Clair wrote a second letter to the court asking for substitution of counsel. That letter again asserted a "total break down of communication" between Clair and the FPD; according to Clair, he was "no longer able to trust anybody within that office." Id., at 62–63. In explaining the source of the problem, Clair reiterated each of the points made in his prior complaint. And then he added one more. Clair recounted that his private investigator had recently learned that the police and district attorney's office were in possession of fingerprints and other physical evidence from the crime scene that had never been fully tested. The FPD lawyers, Clair asserted, were doing nothing to analyze this evidence or otherwise follow up on its discovery. Clair attributed this failure, too, to the FPD's decision to focus on his sentence, rather than on questions of guilt.

Two weeks later, the District Court denied Clair's renewed request for substitution without further inquiry. The court stated: "It does not appear to the Court that a change of counsel is appropriate. It appears that [Clair's] counsel is doing a proper job. No conflict of interest or inadequacy of counsel is shown." Id., at 61. On the same day, the court denied Clair's habeas petition in a detailed opinion. Clair v. Brown, Case No. CV 93–1133 GLT (C.D.Cal., June 30, 2005), App. to Pet. for Cert. 20–91.

Clair sought review of his substitution motion pro se, while the FPD filed a notice of appeal from the denial of his habeas petition. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit instructed the FPD to address whether substitution of counsel was now warranted, and in October 2005, the FPD informed the court that "the attorney-client relationship ha[d] broken down to such an extent that substitution of counsel [would be] appropriate." Attorney for Appellant's Response to Court's Sept. 15, 2005 Order, in No. 05–99005(CA9), Record, Doc. 9, p. 1. The State did not comment or object, and the Court of Appeals provided Clair with a new lawyer going forward. Clair then asked the District Court to vacate the denial of his habeas petition under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), arguing that he should be allowed to explore the significance of the new physical evidence for his case. The District Court (with a new judge assigned, because the judge previously handling the case had retired) rejected that request on the ground that the new evidence did not pertain to any of the claims presented in Clair's habeas petition. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 9–10. Clair appealed that decision as well.1

After consolidating Clair's appeals, the Ninth Circuit vacated the trial court's denial of both Clair's request for new counsel and his habeas petition. See Clair v. Ayers, 403 Fed.Appx. 276 (2010). The Court of Appeals' opinion focused on Clair's substitution motion. Holding that the "interests of justice" standard should apply to that motion, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the District Court abused its discretion by failing to inquire into the complaints in Clair's second letter. See id., at 278. The...

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