Synopsis: NY megafirm Gilbert & Sullivan takes on appeal of Corey Maples, Alabama Death Row resident. According to Justice Alito, Mr. Maples must have thought he’d won the lottery to be represented pro bono by attorneys from “one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive” law firms.
Prestigious and expensive law firm gives this capital case to a couple of bright young things recently out of law school. Motto of firm’s Pro Bono Department is, “You get what you pay for.”
Bright young things leave for more prestigious and expensive jobs elsewhere. Gilbert & Sullivan doesn’t replace them. Never tells Mr. Maples, the court or the state about change.
A year and a half later, Alabama court mails decision with 45-day deadline to appeal. It’s addressed to bright young things formerly at Gilbert & Sullivan. Mailroom clerk sends it back unopened, stamped “Left firm.”
Gilbert & Sullivan rudely awakened by phone call from Mr. Maples’s mother saying her son is on the fast track to execution. Gosh darn it, but didn’t prestigious and expensive law firm promise to file some papers or something?
Prestigious and expensive law firm’s screwup has all but forfeited client’s chances for new trial. Only hope is to admit they abandoned him so he won’t be liable for their screwup, and get him new representation. This, however, would make Gilbert & Sullivan look bad, expose them to malpractice claim.
Faced with this conflict of interest, the choice is clear. Have Mr. Maples sign affidavit saying Gilbert & Sullivan “did nothing wrong.” Blame the Alabama court clerk. Motto of G&S ethics department is, “To hell with the client, CYA.”
Supreme Court (Ginsburg, J.) miraculously saves Mr. Maples from being sacrificed to the honor of the Firm. Says lawyers abandoned him, not his fault he missed filing deadline. Justice Alito writes concurrence to soothe prestigious and expensive law firm’s hurt feelings. Justice Scalia and sidekick write cranky dissent about how decision eviscerates bedrock tradition of executing clients for their lawyers’ mistakes.
Scene: Sub-sub-basement of Gilbert & Sullivan office at 3 a.m. New attorneys DICK and JANE, with GUS from the mailroom, buried in stacks of papers, working at table underneath large overhead ventilator.
Jane: Omigod, isn’t it awesome that we got, like, hired by this prestigious expensive law firm?
Dick: Totally. At two hundred thou a year I can finally afford to move out of my parents’ place.
Jane: But, like, maybe it’s just me, but these 72-hour shifts of comparing xerox copies to the originals – like – I thought “document review” meant something more, like, substantive?
Dick: (lowering his voice) Well, it’s certainly not very prestigious when Gus from the mailroom is doing exactly the same work for $10 an hour.
Gus: Actually it’s $12 after the first 60 hours. But you guys better be careful what you say in here –
Voice from Ventilator: Are you not happy with your work, my children?
Dick & Jane: Mr. Kafka! We didn’t mean –
Mr. Kafka: (chuckling benevolently) It’s spunky kids like you that makes Gilbert & Sullivan what it is today. How would you two like to do a capital case?
Dick: Capital? Like investments?
Gus: He means capital like, if you lose, your client goes to the electric chair where they set his head on fire.
Jane: Gus, you big silly, they don’t do that any more. It’s all by lethal injection now. Just like getting a shot at the doctor’s.
Mr. Kafka: In our fine tradition of defending the poor and oppressed, Gilbert & Sullivan has taken on the representation of an Alabama Death Row inmate who didn’t get a fair trial. Did you know Alabama lawyers only need 5 years of experience to qualify to do capital cases? Of course those tobacco-chewing, married-to-their-sisters rednecks can’t handle the complexities of death penalty work.
Dick: But Mr. Kafka, we only just graduated law school. We have 2 weeks experience in document review.
Mr. Kafka: If you’re not interested –
Jane: Of course we can do it! I still have my bar exam review notes on criminal procedure.
Mr. Kafka: You understand, this is on your own time in addition to your other duties.
Dick & Jane: Yes, yes, yes.
Mr. Kafka: And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask Mr. Handhold, our senior partner, over at Terminal Nursing Home.
Cut to aerial shot of Holman Prison, Alabama. Guard towers, barbed wire, dogs etc. Scratchy recording of blues song.
Voiceover of Corey Maples: Dear Ma. You know how they said I wasn’t constitutionally entitled to have no lawyer represent me on no collateral appeal? Well, hold your hat, Ma, because I got me a New York law firm, says they’ll do me a petition to expand the evidentiary record, seeing that I didn’t get effective assistance of counsel from Lawyer Crackerbarrel at trial. And if that’s denied, they’ll do me a federal habeas. I feel like I just won the lottery. Your loving son, Corey.
Cut to aerial shot of log cabin in rural Alabama.
Voiceover of Mrs. Maples: Dear Son. Land o’ Goshen, I believe you did win the lottery. According to the Martindale Hubbell directory, Gilbert & Sullivan be one of the most prestigious and expensive law firms in the country. As for Lawyer Crackerbarrel, don’t you go disrespecting your daddy. He did the best he could at the hourly rate of $20 for out-of-court work with a case cap of $1000. He was over to the courthouse for your case every day, soon as he could get time off from the feed store. Wasn’t his fault old Judge Wheezy died before they could work out a deal. Hope to see you home by Christmas.
Closeup of turning pages of calendar to show that a year has passed. Dick and Jane, each carrying a cardboard box of their possessions, are walking out the door of Gilbert & Sullivan.
Dick: Well, that’s that. Onward and upward to that dream job with the European Commission in Belgium.
Jane: I wish you hadn’t insulted Gus in the mailroom like that. There was no need to call him a pathetic loser just because he works for $10 an hour.
Dick: Ha, ha, ha! What’s he going to do about it?
Scene: Mailroom of Gilbert & Sullivan, a dank hole with water dripping from the ceiling and rats scurrying around. Creepy music. GUS is holding a letter from the Alabama court addressed to Dick & Jane. His twitching jaw muscles show his indecision. If the film has sufficient budget, a transparent figure of his long-dead mother appears, urging him to forgive and forget. Transparent figure of his long-dead father in overalls shoves her aside and tells him to get even with the Bosses. GUS slowly reaches for the rubber stamp marked “Left firm,” but hesitates. The music swells. Beads of perspiration on his face. Suddenly somebody yells, “Hey, Gus, you loser, get moving!” Gnashing his teeth, Gus stamps the letter “Left firm” and throws it into the “Return” bin.
Cut to Gilbert & Sullivan fileroom. Dust settling on box marked “Alabama v. Maples.” Cobwebs accumulate.
Cut to President Obama taking office to show more years have passed. Exterior shot of U.S. Supreme Court. Any large building with steps and columns will do. Cut to interior where all 9 Justices are sitting around table.
Justice Ginsburg: Let me get this straight. Gilbert & Sullivan miss a deadline in a capital case, forfeiting their client’s claims and any hope of a new trial. Their response is to get him to sign an affidavit saying, “I don’t think my lawyers did anything wrong”? Does the expression “conflict of interest” come to mind?
Justice Alito: Hey, Ruth, that’s harsh. Let’s face it, we all have more friends at Gilbert & Sullivan than on Alabama Death Row. We should cut them some slack. Everybody makes mistakes.
Justice Scalia: Our Anglo-American system of justice is founded on the bedrock principle that clients are responsible for their lawyers’ mistakes. We can’t let word games undermine the principles of comity and federalism. We should let state courts do whatever they want and not be the buttinsky.
Justice Ginsburg: (ignoring him) It’s one thing to get crummy representation by somebody who isn’t paid enough to make ends meet, it’s something else to get crummy representation by lawyers making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan: Yeah.
Justice Alito: (sighing humorously) What can us poor guys do up against three girl judges from New York City? Okay, you can have my vote but I’m writing a concurrence saying how lucky this guy was to be represented by Gilbert & Sullivan.
Justice Scalia: Harrumph! This is the end of Western Civilization as we know it.
See Maples v. Thomas and Brief of Legal Ethics Professors, 2111 WL 2132708 (US).