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When a Person’s Life Is at Stake, Maybe You Should Keep the Courthouse Open

A few years ago, a very sad, and very disturbing, story came out of the Texas judicial system. A criminal appeals judge refused to keep her courtroom open a few minutes after the official closing time, denying a death-row inmate an opportunity to bring a last-minute appeal of his sentence.

As a result, the prisoner lost his last chance to appeal, and the execution went forward. He was put to death the night his appeal was denied.

This story raised all kinds of worrying questions. First off, what kind of person refuses to leave a courtroom open for a few minutes after 5pm, when somebody’s life is at stake? Exactly what was going through this judge’s head, we might never know.

What we do know, however, is that other elements of the Texas judicial system have not taken the rigid view of court closing hours that this judge has: the state Commission on Judicial Conduct issued an official rebuke of the judge’s conduct, and the Texas Supreme Court has just refused to review that decision.

This whole episode raises some serious questions about the priorities of our judicial system. If you’re a long-time reader, you probably know that I don’t really have problems when a failure to adhere to some procedural rule results in a criminal defendant going free. I think that these rules usually exist for very good reasons, and should be followed, cries by pundits that “he got off on a technicality!” notwithstanding.

However, a defendant going free on a technicality does not, in itself, directly harm anyone. When a person is executed on a technicality, due to unreasonably rigid adherence to rules, at least one person suffers immense harm as a direct result (they die).

I’m perfectly aware of the seemingly-contradictory nature of these two beliefs, but there you have it.

Procedural rules generally exist to protect the due process rights of defendants, not to create hoops for them to jump through to vindicate their legal rights. After all, everything in the constitution that deals with criminal procedure, from rules about search and seizure and due process, to double jeopardy, exists to protect defendants. The constitution basically says “You are entitled to a fair trial. Period.” Nowhere does it say anything like “you’re entitled to a fair trial, provided that you do X, Y, Z.”

Now, I understand that judges are human beings, and have lives. In the majority of cases, they can’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to drop everything and stay at work because a lawyer wasn’t diligent in filing his or her papers, and can’t be there until after the official closing hours. But maybe, just maybe, an exception, or a concession to common sense, should be made when a man’s life is at stake. Call me a hippie, I guess.

Decisions like the one this judge made tend to undermine the public’s faith in the judicial system, as well. In order to have a functioning criminal justice system, the public must have enough faith in it that they don’t feel the need to take the law into their own hands. This, in turn, ensures that we don’t live in fear of rampant vigilantism and anarchy.

The only way for people to trust the judicial system is for there to be a consensus that the judiciary is just, and generally “gets it right.” When a judge lets a person get put to death without even hearing an appeal, because the lawyer files his paperwork a few minutes late, well, I’m sure you can see the problem.

In the end, this judge got off light (apparently the “punishment” she received was an official statement that what she did was bad), and maybe should have been punished further. However, any official recognition that her conduct was unprofessional, and violated the defendant’s right to reasonable access to the court system, is a good thing.

Of course, this should also serve as a lesson to attorneys: don’t wait until the last minute to file your papers with the court. Of course, being that this was a life-and-death situation, any halfway-competent attorney probably would have filed the appeal well before the deadline, if this were at all possible. I’m going to assume that this defense attorney was at least halfway-competent, so it’s likely that they would have filed their appeal much sooner, if they could have.

While mistakes involving the late filing of appeals or other important documents rarely have life-and-death consequences, they are one of the most common grounds for attorney malpractice lawsuits, and it’s very hard for an attorney to defend one of these suits, if the allegations that they failed to file their papers on time are true.

What does this mean to you, the client? Well, if you’re reading this and are on death row, you should probably hire a highly experienced criminal defense attorney to handle your case (and if a Big Fancy Law Firm™ offers its services to you for free, take heed. Bigger isn’t always better.).

Of course, statistically, this is very unlikely to happen to anyone in particular. If you ever face a legal issue in your lifetime, it’s far more likely to be a relatively minor crime, or a civil lawsuit. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to read up on the relevant statutes of limitations in your state for your claim, and make sure that your lawyer gets your important documents filed well before that statute runs out.


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