Why did the Supreme Court order this response in a Pennsylvania death penalty case?

June 24

While everybody else was reading about greenhouse gases, defrauding banks and efficient markets, I was perusing Monday’s Supreme Court orders list. One interesting order is next to the denial of cert. in Ballard v. Pennsylvania. The court says:

Marc Bookman, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is hereby directed to file within 40 days a response to the June 2, 2014, letter filed by Michael Ballard in this matter.

And what was in the June 2, letter? Here is a copy, via SCOTUSBlog:

Honorable Justices:

It has come to my attention via the news media that an appeal has been filed on my behalf contesting my death sentence. I never authorized anyone to file any thing, on my behalf. I am not appealing this sentence any further than it has been.

It is my most ardent plea that asks now of you that the appeal filed in my behest be rejected summarily. The reasons being: The “Federal Defender’s” filing have acted without my authorization; without my knowledge even. They are attempting to secure themselves as “attorney’s of record” so as to circumvent having to obtain my authorization. And lastly, but most importantly, they are acting against my own wishes to waive my appeals.

It is a little hard to know what to make of the letter, since several things about it seem off. The attorney ordered to respond is listed as working for the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, not as a “Federal Defender,” and the case seems to be an appeal from state court.

Also, the letter runs together “without my authorization,” “without my knowledge,” “so as to circumvent having to obtain my authorization” and “against my own wishes.” These are slightly different. For example, a lawyer who had obtained prior authorization to pursue a case might make some decisions without the client’s knowledge but not intentionally act to circumvent the client’s wishes. Of course, the author of the letter is presumably not a lawyer. Perhaps the response will clarify things.

Or will it? Lawyers have a duty of confidentiality to their clients, so I am not entirely sure whether the attorney is permitted to say things like “my client told me he wanted to fight until the end” without a waiver. The Pennsylvania rules of professional conduct contain an exception to the duty of confidentiality “to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim or disciplinary proceeding against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client;,” but I’m not sure whether it applies here.

[Textually, the "concerning …" clause might modify "proceeding" or it might modify "allegations." I couldn't find a Pennsylvania case specifically addressing this, and cases interpreting similar language in other states seem to be inconsistent. For an example of the former view, which would militate against disclosure, see In re Disciplinary Action Against Dyer, 817 N.W.2d 351, 358 (N.D. 2012). For the latter, see Hartman v. Cunningham, 217 S.W.3d 408, 413 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).]

So it is possible that the attorney will be put in an awkward position here, whether the allegations are true or false. And of course it is not clear how the court will go about figuring out whether the accusations are true or false and it is not clear what it intends to do about them in any case. I’m not sure it was a bad thing for the court to issue the order, but I’m very curious what the court is hoping to accomplish here.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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