Deadlines and Moral Imbecility
If I had it to do all over again, I would have chosen an easier path. I would have learned to get along with folks, rather than draw lines in the ever-shifting sands of my ego and taste. I would have developed a taste for tidy grooming and an appropriate couture, rather than a pony tail and sandals. I would even have sought to work in a big firm, with big-fee clients, rather than scrambling forever in the law's haunted homes.
I would have done all that, but I don't know if I would have become a member of my law school's law review. Some circle-jerks are best to be avoided.
I was reminded of this reading today's Supreme Court decision in Holland v. Florida. Here is the issue in the case: A lawyer blows off his death-row client's communications and misses a filing deadline. The client is left without a shot at habeas corpus relief because his lawyer was too busy to care to read the client's mail reminding him of the filing deadline. Or, more likely, the lawyer, who was court-appointed, was too busy to care about the client. The letters just kept piling up, and the lawyer ignored them. After all, he most likely reasoned, all desperate men sound alike, and, as every criminal defense lawyer knows, an incarcerated inmate may have lost his liberty but has an abundance of something of which lawyers never have enough: time.
So Mr. Holland sat on death row, in the eye of the needle, if you will. His lawyer ignored him. A filing deadline for post-conviction relief loomed. The client pleaded with the lawyer to file something on time. The lawyer ignored the client. The deadline passed. By application of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the client was supposed simply to die at this point. His agent, the lawyer, had erred after all.
Of course such a result is unconscionable. A lawyer's mistake costing a client his life? Analogies to medicine break down here. It is not simply the case that some clients, like some patients, die regardless of what a doctor does. Whereas medical errors often cannot be corrected, legal errors can. When a lawyer fails to meet something as basic as a filing deadline it simply makes no sense to hold the client accountable for the error. I'd like to think that even a moral imbecile understands that.
It took a majority of the Supreme Court 22 pages to correct this obvious injustice. There was a separate seven page concurring opinion by Justice Alito. And let's not forget the 15-page dissent by two justices. For more than 40 pages the Supreme Court fussed, fumed and fretted about whether it was all right to let a man die because a lawyer missed a filing deadline.
Mr. Holland's case has been remanded to the lower court for further consideration of whether his write to file a habeas petition should be restored on equitable grounds. Should he retrieve the right to file the petition, it is likely the case, as in most post-conviction work, that the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He'll get his day in court and then once again sit looking the same needle in the same eye. But at least he will have had a chance to fully and fairly litigate every last hope. Justice requires that.
I understand that the Court needed to interpret a statute and clarify the scope of equitable tolling. Distinctions needed to be drawn, and precedent set for other cases yet to come. But I swear, it strikes me as obscene that it would take the nation's top court scores of pages to resolve a simple issue. When a lawyer errs, his client ought not to be killed as a consequence. We don't even hold Supreme Court justices, themselves all law review logic-choppers and grand masters of precedent, to such exacting standards. Perhaps the law would be less convoluted if we did.