Supreme Court issued an order list today and granted cert. in a habeas case. The case is called Martel v. Clair.
It's an unusual case. Here's the question presented from the cert. petition:
Whether a condemned state prisoner in federal habeas corpus proceedings is entitled to replace his court-appointed counsel with another court-appointed lawyer just because he expresses dissatisfaction and alleges that his counsel was failing to pursue potentially important evidence.
It appears to be more of a federal procedure-type question, rather than a pure habeas issue. Reading the lower court's decision, the question is not whether the habeas petitioner is entitled to counsel or even the effective assistance of counsel. Since it is a capital case, petitioner has a statutory right to counsel and the Supreme Court has held that counsel must be effective in that situation.
It really is more about a petitioner's right to counsel of his choosing. This appears to be a novel question. As the lower court indicated, habeas courts have discretion to replace appointed counsel in a non-capital case. In other words, federal courts have the power to appoint counsel in non-capital habeas cases where the petitioner has shown that the petition has "likely merit." The statute that grants that authority also grants the court discretion to replace the appointed counsel where justice requires.
On the other hand, the statute mandating counsel in capital habeas cases does not explicitly grant the court similar discretionary power to replace the assigned attorney. The lower court concluded that the habeas court had to have that power. Here's what the court said:
Given the importance that it placed on “quality legal representation” for capital habeas defendants, Congress must have intended to provide such petitioners with at least as much opportunity to replace counsel with whom they are dissatisfied as it provides noncapital habeas petitioners who have no statutory entitlement to counsel. Accordingly, when faced with Clair’s request for new counsel, the district court was required at a minimum to ascertain whether the interests of justice required that the request be granted.
So it really is a three-part question here: (1) does a federal court have the power to substite assigned counsel in capital cases (I would guess yes, but who knows with this Supreme Court); and (2) what is the standard; and (3) was that standard applied correctly here.
Just to note, this case will have no relevance to New York as there aren't any capital habeas petitioners.