The Extent of Right to Counsel: Holland v. Florida

By: Aidan Miliff

Albert Holland

Albert Holland

In its twenty-two years in the legal system, the case of Albert Holland has become a touchstone for multiple judicial issues. Most importantly, the case confronts both the right to self-representation and the question of judicial agency in pursuing counsel. Over the appellate processes of two convictions, Mr. Holland argued incompetent public defense, specifically the failure of a publically appointed post-conviction counsel to file a writ of habeas corpus before a statutory deadline set by congress with the Antiterrorism and Efficient Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), has contributed to failure in his trials and appeals. On these grounds, he was granted a third trial recently for the charges of first degree murder, robbery with a firearm, attempted sexual battery, and attempted murder with a deadly weapon surrounding the events in July 1990, ending in the death of a uniformed police officer. In addition to affecting Albert Holland directly, this may affect the the exercise of writ of habeas corpus and the Sixth Amendment. In particular, the opinions of Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia set ominous precedent for defendants' rights in post-conviction proceedings, dismantling of the rights intended by the Sixth Amendment and the precedent of the Supreme Court.

According to the concurring opinion of Justice Alito, an attorney's errors are constructively attributable to the client. This principal, drawn from from Lawrence v. Florida, asserts that in cases where the Sixth Amendment rights of the client are not directly violated, the client bears responsibility for missed deadlines. Alito insists, in cases like the Holland case, there is significant evidence of Sixth Amendment violation to warrant a new trial. In his opinion, however, he sets a dangerously high bar for these violations by emphasizing the difficulty of differentiating between gross negligence and mere negligence. On this basis, he decides negligence of post conviction counsel cannot be the bar by which equitable tolling is assessed.

Despite his holding in favor of Mr. Holland, the findings by Justice Alito injures the precedent set by Strickland v. Washington, where a client can obtain relief upon proving the performance of counsel is below a reasonable standard confers probability of having affected a negative outcome. The application of Strickland v Washington in the Holland case asks: did the inadequate action of counsel negatively affect the chances in an appeal? It is reasonable to argue the decision did just that.

The failure to file a writ of habeas corpus has clear and devastating consequences for the Holland case. Setting the bar higher than the standard of Strickland v. Washington damages the function of the right to counsel clause set forth by the Supreme Court under Justice Warren Burger. Burger ruled right to counsel, “…exists, and is needed, in order to protect the fundamental right to a fair trial.” Negligence on the part of the attorney, however hard to prove or categorize as gross or mere, undermines the intent of right to counsel insofar as it precludes the fundamental right to a fair trial. Concerned about setting a precedent to harmful to public defenders, Justice Alito made the exercise of the right to a fair trial more difficult, especially for situations like the Holland case.

The opinion of Justices Scalia and Thomas is more injurious to charitable interpretations of the right to counsel clause. In the first section, Scalia posited, “…Congress has displaced courts’ discretion to develop ad hoc exceptions” to the AEDPA filing limit by itself outlining exceptions to the filing deadline. The crucial objection to Justice Scalia on this point is that the appropriate application of the AEDPA in the case of Mr. Holland compromises his Sixth Amendment rights. By well-established precedent, the Supreme Court asserted its right to review acts of Congress for constitutionality. There is no reason to suspend precedent in the case of the AEDPA and Mr. Holland. To the majority of the justices, Mr. Holland's constitutional right to a fair trial in the adversarial system was clearly violated by poor counsel. Scalia argues because there is no precedent for right to effective counsel in Habeas proceedings, the failures of the state appointed counsel are attributable to Mr. Holland alone. Furthermore, the Sixth Amendment, does not protect against these failures. The errors of Mr. Holland’s counsel cannot be proven grossly negligent and do not constitute the necessary qualifications for “equitable tolling”. This extension of the filing deadline is not applicable in this case, even if the other qualification – Mr. Holland’s diligent pursuit of his rights – is met.

Mr. Justice Scalia continues in a footnote, claiming Mr. Holland could have dismissed his state appointed counsel in the Habeas proceedings even though multiple motions filed pro se were stricken because he was represented at the time. Justice Scalia assumes that Mr. Holland was responsible to understand the differences between trial and appellate law at such a level as to know to dismiss his state appointed counsel privately, not through a motion filed pro se. Regardless of legal obligations, the state of legal practice in the United States is such that it is plainly unreasonable for Justice Scalia to hold the petitioner responsible for having a better understanding of the law than his counsel. In view of the statute and stare decisis, Mr. Justice Scalia, joined by Mr. Justice Thomas conclude that Albert Holland has no right to “equitable tolling” or protection under the Sixth Amendment.

To Justices Scalia and Thomas, strict interpretation of the constitution and legal precedent, especially Lawrence v. Florida, are more important than the protections outlined by Strickland v. Washington and the Sixth Amendment. The excuse that the right to counsel does not apply in post-conviction proceedings is abhorrent to the spirit of justice set forth by the Constitution and the history of the Supreme Court. In cases that are literally a matter of life and death, any mistake is important enough to warrant consideration and exception. Justices Scalia, Thomas and, even in concurrence, Alito, disregard the spirit in which the Sixth Amendment should be applied and has been applied in the past. In capital cases, accuracy and due process are orders of magnitude more important than expediency.

Aidan Milliff is a first year in the College majoring in Political Science and Public Policy.