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Supreme Court decides standard for replacing counsel in capital cases

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Monday in Martel v. Clair [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that, when ruling on a defendant's motion to replace counsel in a capital case, "courts should employ the same 'interests of justice' standard that they apply in non-capital cases under a related statute." [18 USC § 3006A]. Kenneth Clair was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He commenced federal habeas proceedings by filing a request for appointment of counsel, which was granted, but he later sought to replace his lawyer, which was denied. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Clair was entitled to new counsel [opinion]. Reversing the decision below, Justice Elena Kagan found that the "District Court here did not abuse its discretion in denying respondent Kenneth Clair's motion to change counsel."

At oral arguments [JURIST report], the attorney for the state of California argued that, due to numerous safeguards and procedural rulings on the effectiveness of Clair's counsel, the state had done due diligence in protecting his rights and did not have an obligation to grant him new counsel after 12 years of proceedings. The attorney for Clair disagreed and argued that Clair did not have a right to new counsel, merely a right to a thorough investigation of his current counsel, which he was denied.

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