Martel v. Clair, 132 S.Ct. 1276 (2012)

Clair was convicted in 1984 and immediately started “gaming the system.”  He repeatedly refused to accept legal assistance from appointed counsel, but the court did substitute lawyers for him on more than one occasion. Clair filed a motion to substitute counsel and a petition for habeas corpus. The District Court consolidated and denied both motions. Clair also submitted petitions in state court seeking post conviction relief

Clair appealed both District Court motions.  The the 9th Circuit panel  (in a non published memorndum opinion) reversed on grounds the trial judge had abused his discretion because had  not stated the  reasons for his decisions; 403 Fed Appx.3d. 276.

The Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit again.  The legal issue is not “ineffective counsel,” but “substitution  of counsel.” Inmates are rarely satisfied with court appointed lawyers and use this stalling tactic to delay-particularly in death penalty cases.  The Supreme Court held that substitution of counsel can occur on the grounds of “interest of justice.”  The 9th Circuit used this vague and subjective test in its decision and, of course,  found it should reverse. The Supreme Court agreed this conceptual test is appropriate but the 9th Circuit applied it wrongly.  Reversed.

If “interest of justice” is the test for whether the court should substitute counsel, the 9th Circuit can use it repeatedly.  The Supreme Court held the test must be closely guarded but of course cannot set any standard because the test is subjective and fact intensive.