The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that an Alabama death row inmate who missed a filing deadline thanks to a mix-up in the mailroom of a prominent New York law firm must be given another chance.
Two young associates from Sullivan & Cromwell’s New York office, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, filed a post-conviction petition in state court August 2001, arguing that Mr. Maples’s trial lawyers had been ineffective. The next summer, they left the firm.

In May 2003, the state court denied the petition, and a clerk sent copies of the ruling to the two lawyers. Sullivan & Cromwell’s mailroom returned the envelopes unopened. One was stamped “Returned to Sender — Attempted Unknown,” the other “Return to Sender — Left Firm.”

The deadline for an appeal came and went, and state and federal courts ruled against Mr. Maples’s request to waive the deadline.

The usual rule in post-conviction proceedings is that a lawyer’s mistakes are imputed to the client, on the theory that the lawyer is the client’s agent. “We do not disturb that general rule,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

What was different here, she said, was that the lawyers had abandoned their client, severing the agency relationship. “Moreover,” Justice Ginsburg said in announcing the decision from the bench Wednesday morning, Mr. Maples “lacked any clue that he had better fend for himself.”
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