New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
June 23, 2008

Supreme Court Adopts Competency Limitation on Scope of Right of Self-Incrimination

To be competent to stand trial, a defendant need only have a rational understanding of the proceeding against him and the ability to consult rationally with his lawyer - I say only, because as any defense lawyer who has represented a mentally ill client knows, this standard can in practice be a fairly low threshold.  

As the American Psychiatric Association points out in its amicus brief in the Supreme Court's decision of Indiana v. Edwards, 2008 WL 2445082 (March 26, 2008), "[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.”

Now, in Edwards, the Court has finally arrived at the APA's obvious conclusion, holding that states are now permitted to "insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial . . . but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves."

In fascinating decision, that pits paternalism against individual choice, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, rests the decision on practical and symbolic grounds.  Not only does the nitty gritty of trial lawyering require a higher level of competence than simply being the trial defendant, he adds that concerns for the "dignity" of both the defendant and the proceedings as a whole dictate against permitting a mentally ill to represent themselves.  "[G]iven 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. Moreover, insofar as a defendant's lack of capacity threatens an improper conviction or sentence, self-representation in that exceptional context undercuts the most basic of the Constitution's criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial."

It is the latter reason that inspires some of the more colorful comments in Justice Scalia's spirited dissent.  Joined by Justice Thomas, he points out that the "dignity" affirmed by the right of self-representation is not to prevent "the defendant's making a fool of himself by presenting an amateurish or even incoherent defense" but rather "the supreme human dignity of being master of one's fate rather than a ward of the State - the dignity of individual choice." (Justice Scalia, you may recall, filed a dissenting opinion in the Court's landmark decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), which held that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and inhuman punishment).

While the majority's decision is to be welcomed for ameliorating some of the tragedy of putting severely mentally ill people on trial in the first place, the dissent raises one important concern, which is that the majority's decision, because it does not include any clear standards as to when a mentally ill person is too ill to represent themselves, risks eviscerating the right of self-representation for the mentally ill altogether (and given the malleability of mental illness diagnoses, could result in significant inroads into the right of self-representation generally). As Justice Scalia warns, "[o]nce the right of self-representation for the mentally ill is a sometime thing, trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier . . . by appointing knowledgeable and literate counsel."

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