The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will determine whether the government may force a mentally ill defendant to take medication so he will be competent to stand trial on nonviolent criminal charges. The case pits the government's interest in holding an individual accountable for alleged wrongdoing against the individual's right to decide what goes into his or her own body.

The case, Sell v. U.S., No. 02-5664, involves Charles Sell, a dentist who was indicted on charges that he defrauded the federal Medicaid program and private health insurers. Diagnosed by government psychologists with a delusional disorder, he became uncontrollable in court and spat at a judge. For the past 31/2 years, he has been confined at a federal medical facility in Missouri.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled 2-1 that the government could require Sell to take antipsychotic medication, because it would help him medically and the government had an "essential" need to try him on what the court considered serious charges.

But in their petition to the Supreme Court, Sell's attorneys argued that, under this decision, "a mentally incompetent individual will lose his right to refuse medication based solely on the government's unproven assertion that he is guilty of a non-violent crime." The 8th Circuit's ruling clashes with a decision by the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in a different case, proving the need for Supreme Court clarification, the petition added.

Urging the court not to take the case, the Justice Department argued that the 8th Circuit Court's ruling was "amply supported by the record." The case is also complicated by the fact that Sell has separately been indicted on charges that he tried to hire a hit man to kill an FBI agent and a prosecution witness.

Thanks to recent progress in psychiatric medication, the question of how the legal system should handle offenders who are mentally ill and can understand -- or, in some cases, sit through -- the proceedings against them only if they are medicated has repeatedly cropped up in the context of violent crime and the death penalty, forcing difficult decisions on courts and medical professionals.

"The government has a legitimate interest in bringing alleged wrongdoers to trial, particularly where the crime is serious enough that it may outweigh whatever interest defendants have in avoiding treatment," said Paul Appelbaum, president of the American Psychiatric Association. "But where's the line? Can you treat someone to make him competent to stand trial for jaywalking? Petty theft?"

In past cases involving violent offenders, the Supreme Court has held that authorities may require prison inmates to take medicine if they would otherwise pose a danger to themselves or other people. And it has said that a pretrial detainee may be forcibly medicated if a court finds that it is in the defendant's medical interest and there is no less intrusive means of making a trial possible.

A Texas inmate, James Colburn, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn his death sentence because the antipsychotic medications he was given made it impossible for him to stay awake, thus rendering him incapable of understanding his trial. The court has given no indication of what it may do in that case.

Separately, the court yesterday agreed to decide whether the First Amendment guarantee of free speech protects telephone fundraisers for charities against state civil fraud charges. In an appeal brought by Illinois Attorney General James E. Ryan, the state seeks the right to sue a telemarketing company for fraud because it asked for donations to a Vietnam veterans group without revealing that it kept 85 percent of the donations to cover its costs. The Illinois Supreme Court has held that such a suit would violate the firm's right to communicate freely with the public. The case is Ryan v. Telemarketing Associates, No. 01-1806.

Also yesterday, the court rebuked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco and generally considered the most liberal federal appellate court, for imposing its own lenient views about criminal defendants' and immigrants' rights before state courts and federal immigration authorities.

The court's rebuke came in three unsigned opinions issued without published dissent. The first two involved cases in which the 9th Circuit court had ordered a new trial for one convicted murderer, holding that the judge in his state court trial had coerced the jury into a guilty verdict, and thrown out the death sentence of another, holding that the California Supreme Court had improperly assessed his claim of ineffective legal representation.

In both cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state courts had not misapplied the high court's precedents. Instead, the justices ruled, the 9th Circuit had failed to defer to defensible judgments by the state courts, as required by a 1996 federal law designed to limit defendants' ability to mount constitutional attacks on their state court sentences by seeking writs of habeas corpus in federal court.

"This is a pretty strong signal from the Supreme Court," said Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. "They're saying Congress told the 9th Circuit six years ago that it should stop substituting its judgment for reasonable ones of state courts, and it hasn't been doing that."

The third case decided yesterday arose out of Guatemalan Fredy Orlando Ventura's request for political asylum in the United States because he feared his ties to that country's right-wing army would expose him to violence by left-wing guerrillas if he returned home.

The Board of Immigration Appeals, a quasi-judicial agency of the Justice Department, determined that Ventura could not show that he had a justified fear that he would be persecuted. The appeals court for the 9th Circuit ordered Ventura admitted to the United States, deciding that he would not be safe in Guatemala.

In his brief to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson accused the judges of the 9th Circuit of usurping the BIA's authority in case after case, creating a major loophole in the country's immigration enforcement.

Yesterday, the justices agreed, ruling that the 9th Circuit "seriously disregarded the agency's legally mandated role." The cases are Early v. Packer, No. 01-1765; Woodford v. Visciotti, No. 02-137; and INS v. Ventura, No. 02-29.

Illinois Attorney General James E. Ryan appealed a ruling that protects telephone fundraisers for charities against civil fraud charges.