The Supreme Court properly ruled this week that the legal standard federal
courts should use in deciding if an indigent defendant in a death penalty case
can get a new lawyer is whether replacing appointed counsel serves “the
interests of justice.”
In her opinion for the unanimous court in Martel v. Clair, Justice Elena Kagan
explained there was no reason to deviate from this standard, which applies to
substitution of counsel in noncapital cases.
The court is right on the legal standard. But it unjustly denied Kenneth Clair,
a death row inmate in California, the right to change lawyers because of the
particular facts of his case.
The justices rejected the argument by California that the legal standard for
substitution of counsel should be more stringent in capital cases. That would
make it harder for those being prosecuted or already on death row, like Mr.
Clair, to change lawyers when they challenge the case against them.
For Mr. Clair, the justices wrongly reversed the ruling of the United States
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in a narrow decision said that he
was entitled to a new lawyer. The Supreme Court said the appeals court had no
basis for overturning a district judge who denied the request for new counsel
because that judge did not abuse his discretion.
The justices also said Mr. Clair should not have been granted a new lawyer when
the district court said it was about to rule on the merits of his appeal. The
case has been remanded back to that court to resolve the appeal.
While this ruling clarifies the proper standard for new counsel in capital
cases, it is also a reminder that the horror of the death penalty continues in
California and elsewhere in the country.
(source: Editorial, New York Times)