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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