Criminal defendants who are declared competent to stand trial should not
automatically be considered competent to serve as their own counsel during
that trial, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 19.
The ruling means that it does not violate the U.S. Constitution for states
to insist that a defendant must be represented by an attorney—even if
the defendant objects—when a judge believes that a defendant is not
competent to conduct his or her own defense. Representing oneself requires a
higher level of mental competence, the Court indicated, than understanding and
participating in a trial.
The 7-2 decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, cites arguments made
by APA and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) in their
amicus brief submitted in this case, State of Indiana v. Ahmad
Edwards (Psychiatric News, May 16).
The Court's decision quoted the APA/AAPL brief in pointing out that"
[d]isorganized thinking, deficits in sustaining attention and
concentration, impaired expressive abilities, anxiety, and other common
symptoms of severe mental illnesses 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 case began in an Indiana trial court in which Ahmad Edwards was being
tried for robbery and attempted murder. In 1999 he had tried to steal a pair
of shoes from a department store. After he was discovered, he fired at a store
security guard, but the bullet hit a bystander. After several evaluations, he
was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a state psychiatric
hospital. After additional hearings over four years, during which time he also
asked to represent himself when he finally went to trial, the hospital told
the trial court that Edwards had improved to the point that he was competent
to stand trial, and the court agreed.
Based on reports that Edwards still suffered from schizophenia, however,
the trial court rejected his request to act as his own attorney and instead
assigned one to him. After two trials he was eventually convicted of all the
charges against him.
Edwards appealed the trial court's ruling that he was not competent to
represent himself, claiming that it violated his Sixth Amendment right to
self-representation. The Indiana Supreme Court overruled the trial court,
ruling that Edwards did have the right to represent himself since he was found
competent to stand trial, and no higher standard was required for competence
to represent oneself that would override this right.
It was this ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned last month.
The Court found that a state does have the right to set a higher mental
competence standard when determining whether a defendant can act as his or her
own attorney than the standard for standing trial.
"Mental illness itself is not a unitary concept," the Court's
ruling concludes. "It varies in degree. It can vary over time. It
interferes with an individual's functioning at different times in different
In addition, the Court said, "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.... 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 also emphasizes that allowing a mentally incompetent defendant
to represent himself or herself "undercuts the most basic of the
Constitution's criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial."
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia (joined by Justice Clarence
Thomas) stated 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."
He also raised the stigma issue when he wrote, "At a time when all
society is trying to mainstream the mentally impaired, the Court permits them
to be deprived of a basic consititutional right—for their own