Lawyer Who Let Client Write Brief Faces Sanctions from SCOTUS

I just read at Bitter Lawyer and The Lawyerist about a show cause order issued by the United States Supreme Court for the submission of a certiorari petition that was hard to read and which departed significantly from the Supreme Court rules. What happened? The lawyer allowed the client to draft the certiorari petition.

I don’t know the back story, but I can imagine what it is. I don’t assume the lawyer was being lazy. Rather, I imagine that the lawyer was “beaten down” and just gave up. Appellate clients can have strong opinions about what should be included in the brief, what arguments should be raised, and what facts should be emphasized. These views are often reinforced through limitless time with little else to do, the influence of fellow inmates with optimistic views of various statutes and precedent, and access to out of date legal materials. Imagine what it would be like for a conscious patient to have access to a medical library during a surgical procedure and a voice to advise on procedural components as the case unfolds. Or imagine if a passenger in row 15C of a plane had a microphone connected to the pilot’s headset. That’s what criminal appellate practice can be like.

The United States Supreme Court is clear how it should work. The lawyer makes decisions on which issues to raise on appeal, the order in which they should be raised, and even which potentially meritorious issue to leave out. The client has the right to be consulted and to have the client’s input considered. It sounds simple on paper, but it plays out in complicated ways as the appeal progresses and can be a true sense of frustration for the lawyer and likely for the client as well.

  • If the lawyer was retained, rather than appointed, the client is technically the customer. In that circumstance, it can be easy for the client to imagine the lawyer as a scribe with a law degree, whose job it is to write down, in lawyerly prose and with a lawyer’s signature the arguments the client wants to raise.
  • If the lawyer was appointed, the client and lawyer may be stuck on this boat together. The judge will be hesitant to support the client’s inclination to represent himself and will not want to appoint a different lawyer. The client will often try to bait the judge into allowing the lawyer off the case to create an appellate issue.
  • Often, it can be tempting to simply paste the client’s language into the brief as a way of buckling the pressure.

This problem is even more difficult in Georgia. The issue you opt to leave out of your brief can come back to haunt you in a habeas petition. However, if you fold in the wake of pressure to include the client’s pet issues, you are open to attack for failing to exercise professional judgment: “You listened to me. Therefore, you were ineffective.”

The lesson from the recent development in the United States Supreme Court is that you cannot abdicate your responsibility as the appellate lawyer. As tempting as it might get to say, “Okay, since you don’t like my ideas, I’ll just put your stuff in the brief.” If you do, you will be held responsible.

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