February 27, 2012

In this article, Jenner & Block Partner Gabriel A. Fuentes outlines several important lessons to be learned from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Maples v. Thomas, a case involving the pro bono representation of a defendant in a capital case in Alabama.  When two associates from a prominent New York law firm left the firm during their post-conviction representation of Cory Maples, without informing him or the court, it ultimately led to the death-row inmate’s missing a deadline for filing an appeal.  Upon learning of this, the firm put new attorneys on the case and moved to have judgment re-entered.  Litigation resumed, winding through the Alabama trial, appellate and supreme courts, one unsuccessful certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, then through the federal district and circuit courts, to another certiorari petition that was granted.  In a 7-2 decision in January, the high court held that Mr. Maples had shown cause to excuse his procedural default and remanded the case.  While Mr. Fuentes notes that “ a few things were done right,” he suggests that the case also serves as a reminder to attorneys and law firms that maintain large and active pro bono practices that they should have (1) a responsible partner assigned to every pro bono case, including an appearance on file with the court; (2) a regular and effective transition procedure to handle attorney exits from the firm; (3) a process that assures that pro bono clients are kept informed of matters affecting their cases; and (4) an understanding that when a lawyer undertakes pro bono work, the firm stands “unambiguously behind the pro bono clients and the work its lawyers are doing for them.”