Should an imprisoned client, who did everything within his control to get the lawyer on track, be punished (in the form of a loss of the chance to appeal a death sentence) when the lawyer fails to file the paperwork on time?
Believe it or not, this is a question for the Supreme Court, as lower courts answered yes.
The Jeff Skilling hearing is the high profile argument at the Supreme Court today. But the justices will also hear a case that goes to the heart of the right to counsel. The question presented: is counsel’s “gross negligence” enough to justify “equitably tolling” the statute of limitations to excuse late filing, or must the lawyers conduct must include factors beyond “gross negligence.”
Petitioner Albert Holland was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Florida in 1996. His appointed appeals counsel, Bradley Collins, failed to timely file Holland’s federal habeas petition, despite Holland’s repeated instructions that he do so.
When Holland learned (not through his lawyer) that the Florida Supreme Court had denied post-conviction relief, he filed a pro se federal habeas petition, since he lawyer had failed to do so. The district court dismissed his petition because it was too late.
The district court concluded that the lawyer had been “grossly negligent,” but said that in order for the statute of limitations to be tolled so that Holland could receive considerations for his habeas petition, the lawyer would have had to actually act in bad faith, have made affirmative misrepresentations or be mentally impaired. The decision was affirmed on appeal.
The State of Florida argues that equitable tolling is never available under the particular act through which Holland was convicted and that, even if it were, attorney error is not enough to trigger it.
It of course is not this simple, and there are a lot of in the weeds statutory questions, but in certain situations the simplistic nature of the question presented must carry a whole lot of weight.
If, by all judgments, appointed counsel is “grossly negligent” and the client has no recourse — even when the recourse requested is just a deadline extension — is there really a true right to counsel at all?
SCOTUSblog has full coverage of the case, and the parties’ petitions, here.
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