A recent Supreme Court ruling that allows state courts to limit legal
self-representation by people with mental illness strengthens their legal
protections, contrary to the conclusions of some media reports of the case,
according to forensic psychiatry experts.
In the case State of Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards, the Supreme Court
ruled that a defendant with mental illness who has been deemed competent to
stand trial is not then automatically competent to represent himself or
herself (Psychiatric News, July 18). Courts can set stricter
standards for defendants who want to act as their own attorney.
Some media accounts of the ruling and the dissenting opinion of two
justices described the establishment of a separate standard of competency for
self-representation for people with mental illness as a loss of rights.
Experts in mental health law disagree.
"This represents a further protection that [ensures] those with
mental illnesses would not necessarily be disadvantaged in a criminal
proceeding," said Patricia Recupero, M.D., J.D., chair of APA's Council
on Psychiatry and Law.
The decision overturned a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court that had
found that a man with schizophrenia was entitled to a new trial on a charge of
attempted murder, because the trial judge had improperly denied his request to
represent himself. The defendant, Ahmad Edwards, appeared alternately coherent
and markedly incoherent during the court proceedings over charges that he
fired a gun at a department store security officer while trying to steal a
pair of shoes. The bullet injured a bystander.
Edwards had wanted to act as his own attorney, while his trial judge
insisted on putting a defense attorney in charge of his case because of
Edwards' diagnosed psychosis. The decision by the lower court followed the
finding of mental health expert witnesses that Edwards was competent to stand
trial after two psychiatric hospitalizations in the three years between the
shooting and the trial.
"We see it as essentially protecting the rights of persons with
disability to have a fair trial," Recupero said.
The Court's ruling cited a brief by APA and the American Academy of
Psychiatry and the Law and quoted a passage on the practical impact of serious
mental illness on higher level mental functioning.
The Court made an appropriate decision, according to Howard Zonana, M.D., a
forensic psychiatrist at yale and a member of APA's Council on Psychiatry and
Law. He noted that court-appointed mental health evaluators already include in
their competency reports an assessment of mental ability when defendants want
to represent themselves.
"Some people are marginal in that they can work with an attorney, but
if you leave them all on their own, it's a whole other ball game,"
The decision is consistent with earlier high-court rulings, including the
1975 case Faretta v. California, which established
self-representation as a basic constitutional right, Recupero said, because it
reaffirms the right to represent oneself but clarifies that defendants may now
be required to show a level of competence that will allow them to do so.
Mental competence is required for the legal system to provide a fair trial
because it is an adversarial system that pits "two competent
adversaries" against each other in an effort to find the truth, she
The ruling stood out as one of the better decisions the justices have made
for people with mental illness in recent years, said Paul Appelbaum, M.D.,
past chair of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law and a former APA
"Sometimes this court and other courts have treated people with
mental illness as if they had focal impairments but were otherwise rational
and capable," Appelbaum said. "That's not what happened here. The
Justices truly recognized the tremendous impact that a severe mental disorder
Critics of the ruling said it will likely have unintended consequences,
such as lower-court judges' frequently appointing lawyers to speed up court
proceedings in cases in which a defendant wants to self-represent. That was a
concern raised by Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissenting opinion.
It's a concern that Appelbaum shared, but he also hoped that flexibility would
allow the development of legal standards and procedures to ensure that the
power to appoint legal representation is not just used for a court's
The ruling is likely to have further effects in other areas of the law and
society, agreed the mental health law experts.
The higher standard for self-representation in criminal cases is likely to
be raised by attorneys involved in non-criminal cases, such as custody cases
in which a parent with serious mental illness wants to represent himself or
herself, said Recupero.
Appelbaum noted that because the Supreme Court's rulings can have a great
influence with other courts and with the general public in the attitude taken
toward mental illness, further consequences from the decision may include a
greater realization about the disabling impact of serious mental illness and
the need for comprehensive treatment.
The majority and minority opinions in Indiana v. Edwards
are posted at<www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/07-208.html>.
The APA amicus brief is posted at<www.aapl.org/pdf/edwardsbrief2008.pdf>.▪