In the case of condemned killer Michael Anthony Archuleta, a unanimous court said low pay and the complexity of such cases have shrunk the pool of Utah attorneys who will accept them. Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins wrote the justices may soon be "forced" to rule a lack of able and willing attorneys is grounds to reverse a death sentence and impose life without parole instead.
State lawmakers have the duty to provide adequate resources to train and compensate death-penalty lawyers, the high court said.
"It falls to us, as the court of last resort in this state, to assure that no person is deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due - and competent - process of law," Wilkins wrote. "Without a sufficient defense, a sentence of death cannot be constitutionally imposed."
Friday's ruling involved a request by lawyers with the Utah Attorney General's Office for sanctions against two appellate attorneys for Archuleta, who tortured and killed Gordon Ray Church, a 28-year-old Southern Utah University theater student in 1989.
Thomas Brunker, an assistant state attorney general, alleged the two misstated the law and the evidence in some of the claims in Archuleta's post-conviction appeal, then refused to correct the misinformation. The appeal contained about 120 claims, some of which had previously been rejected by the Supreme Court, he said.
Attorneys Ed Brass and Lynn Donaldson have responded they simply were providing aggressive and responsible representation of Archuleta. At arguments before the Supreme Court in September, Brass pointed out that if defense attorneys fail to raise all possible claims in an appeal, those claims could be barred in later proceedings.
Fourth District Judge Donald Eyre found there was no unethical behavior and declined to impose sanctions. The Attorney's General's Office appealed that decision, which led to Friday's ruling upholding Eyre.
Brunker said he viewed Friday's decision as a win: He had asked for a ruling that court rules barring attorneys from pressing claims with no evidentiary support applied to lawyers in capital cases. The high court affirmed it did.
Archuleta, whose conviction has already been upheld, has claimed previous lawyers were ineffective and is seeking a new sentencing hearing.
Justice Ronald Nehring recused himself from hearing Friday's case and was replaced by 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan.