Monday, June 23, 2008

Coverage of the Indiana v. Edwards Decision

The New York Times has this coverage of last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Indiana v. Edwards ("Self-Representation by the Mentally Ill Is Curbed," June 20, 2008):

"A mentally ill defendant who is nonetheless competent to stand trial is not necessarily competent to dispense with a lawyer and represent himself, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The court said that judges could 'take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities' and, in the interest of achieving a fair trial, deny the constitutional right to self-representation that criminal defendants ordinarily enjoy.

The 7-to-2 decision overturned a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court that had found that a schizophrenic man was entitled to a new trial on a charge of attempted murder because the trial judge had improperly denied his request to represent himself.

The defendant, Ahmad Edwards, who was sometimes quite coherent and at other times decidedly not so, had differed with his lawyer over defense strategy. He wanted to argue self-defense, while his lawyer wanted to present a defense based on lack of intent.

Mr. Edwards had fired a gun at a department store security officer after trying to steal a pair of shoes. He was found competent to stand trial after two psychiatric hospitalizations over three years after the shooting.

A landmark Supreme Court decision in 1975, Faretta v. California, established the right to self-representation as a basic constitutional right.

Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the question in this case was answered neither by the Faretta decision, which did not involve a competency issue, nor by a subsequent decision that permitted a mentally ill defendant to waive the right to counsel and plead guilty.

Conducting a defense at trial without a lawyer’s help requires a higher degree of competence, Justice Breyer said.

Noting that the court has referred to the right to self-representation as an aspect of individual dignity, Justice Breyer said dignity was lacking in the 'spectacle that could well result' from a mentally ill defendant’s efforts, which he said were 'at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling.'

Justice Breyer said that rather than setting an all-encompassing definition of competency, the court would leave the decision to individual trial judges, who he said 'will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individual circumstances of a particular defendant.'

Indiana had asked the court simply to overrule the Faretta decision, which Justice Breyer has criticized. But he said 'recent empirical research' indicated that the decision was not, in fact, leading to unfair trials when defendants were mentally competent.

The decision, Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208, drew a vigorous dissenting opinion from Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Scalia said the treatment Mr. Edwards received in being denied to present the defense of his choice 'seems to me the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness.'

The only reason the court has previously accepted as valid for denying self-representation, Justice Scalia said, was a threat to the orderliness ofthe trial. But Mr. Edwards was 'respectful and compliant' and did not even have the chance to try representing himself, Justice Scalia continued, adding, 'The dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one’s fate rather than a ward of the state — the dignity of individual choice.'

Justice Scalia said that 'trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier' by appointing lawyers rather than giving mentally ill defendantsa chance to proceed on their own.

'In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment,' he said, 'the court’s opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct.'"

And here's an excerpt from an analysis provided by Lyle Denniston, with scotusblog ("Faretta survives, with limits," June 19, 2008):

"The Edwards opinion by Breyer, in dealing with mentally ill individuals who voice a desired to be their own defense counsel, provides one clear implication, and one quite unclear prospect.

It is clear, simply from the result, that states may now have one standard of mentally competency for putting a mentally impaired person on trial, and a higher standard that such a person would have to meet in order to be allowed self-representation. Ahmad Edwards had been found competent to be put on trial, but not to represent himself.

What is unclear, though, is what the higher standard is for representing one’s self when mental competency is at issue. The Court expressly rejected a proposal by the state of Indiana that self-representation be denied whenever the accused 'cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.' The state had suggested that approach, saying it 'fits Sixth Amendment doctrine, which allows some balancing of interests when defendants attempt self-representation.'

In fact, the state argued, if the Court did not adopt some such standard, that would be a reason to cast Faretta aside.

The Court said no to that approach: 'We are sufficiently uncertain…as to how that particular standard would work in practice to refrain from endorsing it as a federal constitutional standard here. We need not now, and we do not, adopt it.'

To which Scalia replied in dissent: 'Today’s holding is extraordinarily vague. The Court does not accept Indiana’s position that self-representation can be denied ‘where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.'…It does not even hold that Edwards was properly denied his right to represent himself. It holds only that lack of mental competence can under some circumstances form a basis for denying the right to proceed pro se…We will probably give some meaning to this holding in the future, but the indeterminancy makes a bad holding worse.'

In other words, there will have to be sequels. In the meantime, states can experiment with various formulations of a standard — so long as it is not theone Indiana suggested."

Additional coverage is available in The Washington Post and the Legal Times, and from the Associated Press.

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