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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Indiana v. Edwards - Right to Self-Represent Limited

Ahmad Edwards was tried for attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness and theft following a shooting incident outside a store where he had shop-lifted a pair of shoes. He sought to represent himself but the trial judge found him not competent to do so. Evidence showed he suffered from schizophrenia. He had earlier been declared incompetent, but was later found to have his competency restored following a stay at a state mental hospital. Although it appeared he was competent to stand trial, the trial judge did not believe he was competent to defend himself at trial. Appointed counsel was forced upon Edwards. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled he had a right to act as his own defense counsel, ordering a new trial under Faretta v. California (recognizing right of self-representation). Indiana argued that the states should be allowed to impose a higher standard for measuring competency to represent oneself at trial than the Supreme Court has specified for measuring competency to stand trial. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, in Dusky v. United States, the Court has held that the standard for competency to stand trial is whether the accused "has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." The question presented was whether states must apply the Dusky standard in evaluating competency to represent oneself, or could a state adopt a higher standard. In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, although it "declined" to overrule Faretta, and rejected a more specific standard that would "deny a criminal defendant the right to represent himself at trial where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury." The majority decision, written by Justice Breyer, held that "the Constitution permits judges to take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities by asking whether a defendant who seeks to conduct his own defense at trial is mentally competent to do so. That is to say, the Constitution permits States to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial under Dusky but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves." Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, arguing that "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."