Supreme Court Rules On Self-Representation

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

A mentally ill defendant found competent to stand trial does not have the right to act as his own attorney, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices ruled 7 to 2 that it does not violate the Constitution for a judge to differentiate between when a mentally deficient defendant is found sane enough to assist in his defense and when he is competent enough to conduct his defense.

"A right of self-representation at trial will not affirm the dignity of a defendant who lacks the mental capacity to conduct his defense without the assistance of counsel," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote.

"To the contrary, given that defendant's uncertain mental state, the spectacle that could well result from his self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling."

The decision was among five handed down yesterday involving age discrimination, disability benefits and union organizing [story, D1]. The court still must decide before the end of its term this month the constitutionality of the District of Columbia's handgun ban, punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez disaster and whether someone who rapes a child is eligible for the death penalty.

The self-representation case decided yesterday involved Ahmad Edwards, a delusional and schizophrenic man who fired shots outside an Indianapolis department store after attempting to steal shoes. It was only after six years in custody that he was found competent to stand trial. A judge insisted Edwards be represented by counsel, and he was found guilty of attempted murder, among other charges.

The Indiana Supreme Court said he should get a new trial, because U.S. Supreme Court precedents recognized a Sixth Amendment right of defendants to represent themselves at trial.

Breyer said it was not necessary to overrule cases such as 1975's Faretta v. California, which held that defendants have a right to self-representation even if it is likely to result in conviction. He said new studies have shown that instances of unfair trials are not widespread, and that giving judges the authority to insist upon the assistance of counsel will minimize them further.

At oral arguments in the case, there was one vociferous defender of a defendant's right to proceed without counsel, Justice Antonin Scalia, who yesterday wrote a dissent.

"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," Scalia wrote.

Referring to the majority opinion, he added: "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." He was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The two usually are sticklers for examining the words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In this case, Scalia acknowledged that the right of self-representation "is not explicitly set forth in the text of the Sixth Amendment." But it was indicated in the amendment, Scalia explained, and has been recognized by the court.

The majority did not argue the point but said such a right can be limited by competency requirements. Breyer pointed to a brief by the American Psychiatric Association that said severe mental illness "can impair the defendant's ability to play the significantly expanded role required for self-representation even if he can play the lesser role of represented defendant."

The court agreed with Indiana and its supporters that a state has an interest in making sure trials are orderly and appear fair to the public, rather than descending into "farce."

But the court did not accept a proposed standard that the defendant be denied the right to proceed on his own if he "cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury."

Because the majority did not set a standard, Scalia predicted the issue will return to the court.

The case is Indiana v. Edwards.

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