Thursday, March 27, 2008

Coverage of Arguments in Indiana v. Edwards

Oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Indiana v. Edwards took place yesterday, March 27, 2008. According to scotusblog, "The core issue in Indiana v. Edwards (07-208) is whether states are constitutionally free to require that accused individuals have a higher level of mental capacity to represent themselves than is required for them simply to be put on trial with a lawyer at their side. As the lawyer for the state pressed for a two-level standard, most of the Court reacted with skepticism, first, about how to define a workable two-level test, and, second, about how that would complicate actua ltrials. Underlying much of the oral argument was a deep perplexity over how to conduct fair trials for persons with sub-standard mental capacity."

Read the full analysis from scotusblog.

Here's an excerpt from the New York Times ("Court Looks at Legal Role for Mentally Ill"):

"Addressing the justices, the Indiana solicitor general, Thomas M. Fisher, said the judge was 'justified in requiring a higher level of competency for self-representation in order to prevent the trial of Ahmad Edwards from descending into a farce.'

Justice Antonin Scalia, the member of the court who takes the broadest view of various rights under the Sixth Amendment, challenged Mr. Fisher to explain why the judge could not have waited to see how Mr. Edwards would actually handle himself.

'By waiting to see if in fact he will turn the trial into a farce,' Justice Scalia said, 'you avoid the risk of depriving him of his right to represent himself, which is certainly a very important constitutional right.'
Justice Scalia had a similar exchange with Michael R. Dreeben, a deputy United States solicitor general, who argued for the federal government on Indiana's behalf. Mr. Dreeben said the court should not adhere to a rigid rule that would 'force the state to have the train wreck occur when the evidence is very firm and reliable that it will occur.'

He said the state's interest lay in 'starting the trial from the beginning in a coherent and orderly way and not subjecting the defendant to the risk of an unfair trial based on the defendant's own incompetence.'

Justice Stephen G. Breyer was among the justices most sympathetic to the state's argument. Defendants representing themselves 'do surprisingly well,' Justice Breyer said, citing a study noted in a brief filed by the American Psychiatric Association. But, he added, 'there is a small subclass' of defendants who fare badly on their own.

Why not have 'a rule which permitted a state to deal with this subclass of disturbed people who want to represent themselves?' Justice Breyer asked Mark T. Stancil, the lawyer for Mr. Edwards. 'This is a perfect instance where the states should experiment.' Mr. Stancil replied that such an approach 'undermines the fundamental premise of the Sixth Amendment, which is it's his defense.'

He offered examples of his client's evident understanding of the proceedings. That provoked a dismissive comment from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who said, 'There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam.'

The standard for competence to stand trial, formulated in a 1960 Supreme Court decision, Dusky v. United States, is fairly basic. It requires that a defendant have 'sufficient present ability to consult with lawyer with areasonable degree of rational understanding' and a 'rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.'

Mr. Fisher, the Indiana solicitor general, said the standard for competency to represent oneself should require more, 'that it is within the state's authority to override this right where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or the jury.'

To that, Justice Scalia responded: 'Cannot communicate coherently? I sometimes think that the lawyers cannot communicate coherently.'"

Additional coverage of the case is available from these media outlets:
Washington Post

Legal Times
Associated Press
USA Today
Indianopolis Star
National Public Radio ("Day to Day")

A transcript of the oral arguments is available at:

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