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Court rules on habeas corpus competency case

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case of first impression today regarding a prisoner's competency to continue on with habeas corpus proceedings. In its decision, the Circuit Court remanded to the District Court.

Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote the court finds it odd to think that someone who initiates a habeas corpus proceeding can then later freeze it by claiming to be mentally incompetent. That is what Eric Holmes is claming in Eric D. Holmes v. Edwin G. Buss, 04-3549, 06-2905. Holmes has been sentenced to death for committing two murders in 1992.

Holmes filed two petitions for federal habeas corpus but later claimed he was not competent to assist his lawyer with the proceedings. District Judge Larry McKinney ruled in 2003 Holmes was competent after questioning him and denied habeas corpus relief. Holmes appealed, and in 2005 the 7th Circuit remanded to the District Court to determine Holmes' competency to proceed with the appeal because his counsel had said Holmes' mental condition had deteriorated since the April 2003 hearing. This time, Judge McKinney consulted two expert doctors and also questioned Holmes. Judge McKinney also denied Holmes' request that one of the doctors be made available for cross-examination; the appeal in the 7th Circuit then continued.

The 9th Circuit Court held that in a capital case a petitioner for federal habeas corpus must be competent to assist his counsel, and if not, the proceeding must be stayed, Rohan ex rel. Gates v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2003). In a capital case, it makes sense a prisoner would seek to be proven to be incompetent after trial because an execution can be stayed until he is evaluated.

The state in this case argues there should be a higher standard for assessing incompetence after trial because the client's role in assisting his attorney in a post-conviction proceeding is more limited than if he is on trial; Holmes argues that the standard should be the same.

Judge Posner wrote the idea of creating different standards to determine competence is not a good idea. The competency test should include the litigant's particular mental condition and the nature of the decision that he must be competent to make.

Judge McKinney made his decision that Holmes was competent to assist his attorney in the appellate phase of habeas corpus proceedings based on what Holmes said at the hearings. Judge Posner wrote that the Circuit Court is puzzled that Judge McKinney didn't allow cross-examination the doctors who examined Holmes.

The case is remanded to the District Court to determine Holmes' competency.
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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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