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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  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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