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Legal News
High Court Rules on Competence Standards During Trial
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 14 page 2-2

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 ways."

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 good."

The decision is posted at<www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-208.pdf>.

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