An obvious injustice was largely put right by the U.S. Supreme Court this week in a case involving a Florida death row inmate whose attorney missed a key deadline for an appeal. The high court gave Albert Holland another chance to demonstrate that his attorney's unprofessional conduct should allow him to have his case heard. The ruling indicates the court is not rigidly tied to rules when their application leads to an unjust result.
Holland is a convicted murderer who knew more than his appointed counsel about the proper timing of his federal habeas corpus challenges. He repeatedly wrote to attorney Bradley Collins of the need to be cognizant of a tight federal deadline that would come up quickly after a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. He asked to be kept abreast of his case and alerted when that ruling was issued. After Holland's letters were ignored and his attorney was uncommunicative, Holland wrote to the Florida Supreme Court asking for new counsel — a request perversely denied by the court on the grounds that he needed to communicate through counsel.
When Holland learned through his own research at a prison library that the Florida Supreme Court had ruled against him and the deadline to seek review in federal court had passed, he filed his own federal paperwork. Two lower federal courts concluded he was too late and could not be helped.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court ruled that the unprofessional conduct of Collins may well have constituted "extraordinary circumstances" that would justify allowing Holland's case to proceed despite the late filing. Breyer noted that the point of the congressionally established one-year deadline was to move death penalty habeas reviews along, not to "end every possible delay at all costs." The 7-2 opinion was an affirmation that justice sometimes requires flexibility from strict rules, and that is what the courts are here to do.
It was a far better result than the one Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas offered up in a dissent. Scalia wrote that judges don't have the power to rewrite technical rules established by Congress. It doesn't matter how badly a lawyer undermines his client's legal rights, Scalia said, the courts are helpless to set things right.
Judicial discretion is an important value that allows judges to bring common sense and compassion to the cases before them. Holland's case called out for special consideration. How cramped our legal system would be if our courts had none to offer.