Self-Representation Is Not An Absolute Right

Supreme Court Limits Self-Representation by Mentally Ill Defendants

Lawyers are good for something, it appears.

The Supreme Court on Thursday said that defendants found mentally competent to stand trial are not necessarily also competent to represent themselves at the trial. As a result, the Court ruled by a 7-2 vote that states may insist that mentally ill defendants be represented by counsel when "they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves."

The decision was one of five issued Thursday, leaving 10 cases outstanding for the Court to hand down next week, which is expected to be the Court's final week before adjourning for the summer. The Court will sit on Monday and another day next week, as yet unspecified.

In the case on self-representation, Justice Stephen Breyer said the traditional test for competence to stand trial -- the ability to consult with counsel and to assist in preparing the defense -- does not weigh the additional skills needed to represent oneself. Someone competent to stand trial, Breyer wrote, may nonetheless "be unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel."

The ruling came in Indiana v. Edwards, in which Ahmad Edwards, accused of attempted murder in a 1999 department store robbery, seeks to represent himself at trial. Three times he was found incompetent to stand trial, but by 2005, after psychiatric help he was found competent -- and he renewed a request to represent himself. The trial judge said no, but on appeal two Indiana courts said he had a right to represent himself under Supreme Court precedents.

Indiana appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing for a standard that would deny self-representation to defendants who "cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury."

Breyer rejected that standard, but said trial judges should be trusted to make the determination of whether a defendant needs the assistance of counsel.

In the 1975 case Faretta v. California, the Supreme Court said defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to represent themselves if they choose to do so "voluntarily and intelligently." Breyer said that since then other rulings have said that right is not absolute.

Breyer cited an American Psychiatric Association brief that said the kind of disorganized thinking and impaired expression that characterize severe mental illness can seriously hamper a defendant's "significantly expanded role required for self-representation even if he can play the lesser role of represented defendant."

The Court also said that in some instances, denying a defendant the right to self-representation will promote rather than deny the dignity of the defendant. "The spectacle that could result from [a mentally ill defendant's] self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling," Breyer wrote.

In dissent Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the individual dignity issue at stake in the case is not whether the defendant makes "a fool of himself by presenting an amateurish or even incoherent defense. Rather, the dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being a master of one's fate rather than a ward of the state -- the dignity of individual choice."

Now that judges will be able to deny requests for self-representation under "extraordinarily vague" standards, Scalia said judges will have the incentive to "make their lives easier" by appointing counsel rather than "deciphering" defendants' less polished filings.

Scalia also accused the majority of being politically incorrect in its treatment of the mentally ill. "At a time when all society is trying to mainstream the mentally impaired, the Court permits them to be deprived of a basic constitutional right -- for their own good."