WASHINGTON Supreme Court justices appeared sympathetic on Tuesday to an Alabama death row inmate who missed a filing deadline for an appeal because his New York attorneys went to other jobs and a court notice to them was returned to sender, saying address unknown.
Some justices asked if the case should at least be sent back to an appeals court to clear up a number of disputed factual questions in the case of Cory Maples, convicted of two murders committed in 1995 and sentenced to death.
He had argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. When an Alabama court rejected those claims, it sent the notice to his two attorneys at the prominent New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, not knowing they had left the firm and no longer represented Maples.
The law firm's mailroom sent the notice back unopened and stamped "Return to Sender." A local attorney in Alabama for Maples also received a copy of the ruling, but did nothing. Maples missed the filing deadline to appeal to federal courts.
Gregory Garre, a former Bush administration solicitor general who is representing Maples before the Supreme Court, called the facts of the case "extraordinary and shocking." A U.S. appeals court had ruled against Maples.
Justice Samuel Alito told Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman that he was pushing the Supreme Court to consider a constitutional rule that would have far-reaching impact, requiring court clerks to serve documents on both sides.
Alito also asked why the state did not just allow the appeal to be filed anyway as the deadline had passed through no fault of Maples.
Chief Justice John Roberts said a prosecutor eventually sent notice of the ruling to Maples in prison. "He must have thought there was a problem," Roberts said.
Justices Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy seemed particular concerned that it involved a death penalty case.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that when a lawyer stops representing a client, there usually is an obligation to tell the client and the court and to arrange for someone else to take over the case.
Justice Antonin Scalia was the only court member who strongly and consistently supported the state's position during the argument. He repeatedly said Maples had a local counsel who received the notice.
"Where does the Constitution say, by the way, that you have to give notice, that every judicial action has to be noticed to the parties to the case?" Scalia asked Garre.
A ruling is expected early next year.
The Supreme Court case is Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63.
(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Jerry Norton)