Thursday, June 19, 2008
The Supreme Court decided Indiana v. Edwards today. In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that the standard for competency to stand trial is not the same as the standard for competency to waive counsel and go to trial pro se.
For many of the reasons discussed by Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) in dissent, I think it is a pretty poor decision. While the Court tells us that a State does not necessarily deprive a competent defendant of the right to self-representation by forcing him to accept counsel, the Court provides no guidance as to what the standard is to determine competence to go pro se. I think that the upshot of this will be, as the dissent predicts, that trial judges will routinely reject a defendants' requests to go pro se whenever he has any kind of mental illness.
The Court invokes fairness -- that a competent but mentally ill defendant will suffer an unfair trial if he is allowed to represent himself -- but it seems to me that the decision is more about efficiency. The question is: how can we process as many mentally ill criminal defendants through the system as possible? The Court has hit upon the answer: find them competent to stand trial but incompetent to act as their own attorneys. Though my own experience representing the mentally ill is brief and anecdotal, it has always struck me that the standard for competence to stand trial is simply too low.
And that is the real problem with today's decision: the standard for competence to go pro se should be the same as the standard for competence to stand trial, but the latter should be higher than it is currently. [Mike Mannheimer]