ILNews

SCOTUS limits pro se rights

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that states may require a criminal defendant who suffers from a mental illness to have a lawyer rather than allowing that person to act as his or her own defense counsel, even when the individual is competent to be tried.

Vacating an Indiana Supreme Court decision from more than a year ago, the nation's highest court today issued its 7-2 ruling in Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards, No. 07-208, holding that states can restrict pro se representation for defendants who've been deemed competent for trial. The case is remanded to the Indiana Supreme Court to decide what happens next, such as going back to Marion Superior Judge Grant Hawkins for proceedings.

"The Constitution does not forbid States from insisting upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial but who suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.

This appeal culminates a case that began in July 1999 in downtown Indianapolis, where Edwards stole shoes from a store, and shot at police while running away before being arrested. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and 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 at the Indiana Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. In May 2007, the justices reversed the trial court order, saying the federal constitutional right to self-representation requires Edwards to be allowed to proceed pro se. But the state justices invited SCOTUS review, and the high court heard arguments March 26.

In its 25-page ruling, the majority pointed out that its precedent frames the questions presented in Edwards but doesn't answer them. Justices wrote that the state trial judge is often the best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions that are tailored to a particular case.

The court stopped short of granting Indiana's request to adopt higher standards to deny a criminal defendant the right to pro se representation if that person can't "communicate coherently with the court or a jury," or overruling its foundational self-representation case of Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), which held that defendants have the right to proceed without counsel when they voluntarily and intelligently elect to do so.

Indiana asked the justices to overturn that three-decades-old decision, but the court said it didn't address mental competency and later cases have made clear pro se representation isn't absolute.

Justice Antonin Scalia - joined by Justice Clarence Thomas - disagreed in an 11-page separate dissent, writing that the majority holding is "extraordinarily vague" and questions the decision-making ability of trial judges.

"Once the right of self-representation for the mentally ill is a sometime thing, trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier ... by appointing knowledgeable and literate counsel," he wrote.

"The Court today concludes that a State may nonetheless strip a mentally ill defendant of the right to represent himself when that would be fairer," Justice Scalia concluded. "In my view, the Constitution does not permit a State to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury - a specific right long understood as essential to a fair trial."
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