...the Constitution guarantees people accused of serious crimes the right to counsel. If a lawyer turns out to be negligent, the system must do all it can to protect the individual’s rights.
The Supreme Court has a chance to reinforce that fundamental protection in the case of Albert Holland...Mr. Holland was given a new lawyer, who argued that due to the first lawyer’s extreme negligence, the failure should be excused under “equitable tolling,” which allows for deadlines to be excused in the
broader interests of justice.
The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected the argument, ruling that even gross negligence by a lawyer does not provide a basis for equitable tolling. Unless there was “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment,” or something of that magnitude, the court said, the deadline would stand.
It is a shameful ruling. Mr. Holland’s lawyer’s conduct was not merely negligent. It was, as legal ethics professors and practitioners say in a brief, “intolerable, thoroughly unacceptable behavior.” The legal system cannot take away Mr. Holland’s right to challenge his conviction on the basis of inexcusably awful lawyering.
Underlying all of the law is the principle of “equity,” meaning rules must be interpreted in ways that advance fundamental fairness. The Supreme Court, which hears Mr. Holland’s case on Monday, should not allow this to continue. It should reverse the 11th Circuit’s deeply unfair ruling and allow Mr. Holland’s habeas petition to be heard.