ILNews

SCOTUS hears pro se competency case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments this morning in its third Indiana case in the past six months, pondering whether defendants found competent to stand trial maintain a right to represent themselves.

In its first case of the morning at 10 a.m., justices took on Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards, No. 07-208, delving into what the Sixth Amendment dictates regarding competency standards for pro se litigants. Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher argued for the state and shared his time with Michael R. Dreeben of the U.S. Solicitor General's office, while Washington, D.C., attorney Mark Stancil argued for Edwards.

The case stems from a 1999 incident in Indianapolis in which Edwards stole shoes from a downtown store, fled, and then shot at police before being arrested. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After years of back and forth decisions about his competency to stand trial, Edwards was ultimately cleared for trial. The trial judge determined he wasn't fit to represent himself, but Edwards won on appeal. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed that order in May 2007 with a ruling that invited SCOTUS review of precedent.

This morning's arguments drew a small group of Hoosier attorneys from both sides, including Michael R. Fisher from the Marion County Public Defender Agency's appellate division, who saw the case through the Indiana appellate courts before it went to the SCOTUS. This was the first case of Fisher's to reach this level. Though he didn't argue the case, he had a front-row seat at lead counsel table.

Both Stancil and Thomas Fisher said the justices were active as always in their questioning and presented insightful considerations about the practical ramifications of the case. Neither encountered any surprises, they said. Justice Antonin Scalia was particularly engaged in the arguments, as he's viewed as one of the strongest proponents of the Sixth Amendment, the attorneys said.

"I thought it was a good day," Thomas Fisher said. "Several justices acknowledged the difficulty trial judges have in these situations, where they have to balance someone's right to represent with what happens when that person can't be relied upon to relay a coherent defense."

Indiana Lawyer couldn't immediately reach Michael Fisher following the arguments.

Audio broadcasts of arguments are rare and the court doesn't offer video of the arguments, although a transcript can be viewed here.

With these arguments complete, the high court now has three argued cases from Indiana on its plate, all of them within the past six months. Those are a money laundering case from East Chicago, U.S. v. Efrain Santos, No. 06-1005, that the court heard in October and the high-profile, consolidated voter identification law case, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, No. 07-21, and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, No. 07-25, argued in January. Justices are expected to rule on at least the first two argued cases by the time the court recesses in late June.
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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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