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Interests of Justice Standard Governs Capital Substitution Motions

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Supreme Court announced today that federal courts should use the "interests of justice" standard that applies to non-capital cases when deciding whether to grant a federal habeas petitioner’s substitution motion in a capital case.

Though the Court adopted petitioner Kenneth Clair’s interests of justice standard in Martel v. Clair, Justice Elena Kagan noted that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Clair’s substitution motion.

Kenneth Clair landed on death row in 1987 for sexually assaulting, beating and strangling a woman. In 1994, he filed a federal petition for habeas corpus. A federal court in California appointed a federal public defender as Clair's habeas counsel for the proceeding.

Over the next 10 years, Clair bounced between state and federal courts with his appeal, and sent multiple requests for new counsel to the federal court; one was granted, one was denied. In his second substitution motion, Clair claimed that his attorney was only focused on appealing his death sentence, and not proving Clair's innocence. Clair also claimed that the attorney failed to review physical evidence that a private investigator located in connection with the crime.

The district court denied Clair's substitution motion. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the denial in 2010.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in a unanimous opinion, finding that, while the appellate court applied the proper standard for determining when counsel should be replaced, it reached the wrong conclusion in Clair's case.

Due to the fact-specific nature of a substitution motion, a district court's decision deserves deference, and should only be overturned for an abuse of discretion. Here, the Supreme Court ruled that the district court's denial of Clair's second request for new counsel was not an abuse of discretion under the interests of justice standard.

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