The Supreme Court continued the downward spiral of our insanity rules this week. The majority held that a defendant can be held to be competent to stand trial but held incompetent to represent himself — a green light for judges to continue to find clearly crazed individuals sane while denying them the right to act in their own defense. Justices Scalia and Thomas wrote a stinging and well-founded dissent.
At issue was the demand for self-representation made by Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic, who was found sane under the low standards applied in most states today. However, he was found to be incompetent in self-representation. For a prior column on the case, click here.
Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that district courts could “take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities” in denying the right of self-representation. The decision overturned the decision of the Indiana Supreme Court. It is a rollback on the right of self-representation articulated in 1975 in the Faretta v. California decision.
Some of us have long argued that the standard for the competence to stand trial should be the same as the competence to serve as your own attorney. Currently, clearly deranged defendants are deemed sane, but courts want to avoid the unpleasant appearance of their insanity during self-representation. Under the current approach, courts can maintain the not-so-noble lie that defendants are sane by preventing them from playing a role in the trial.
Yet, Breyer ruled out such a unified rule. He insisted that district courts “will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individual circumstances of a particular defendant.” Right. The decision is an invitation for judges to make their lives easier by preventing self-representation. This is precisely the view made by Scalia in his dissent.
Once you are ready to be done with Justice Antonin Scalia, he comes out with an opinion where he proves his value on the Court. That is my view of the 7-2 decision in Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208.
Scalia objected to the decision as “the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness.” He warned that it would merely give “trial judges . . . every incentive to make their lives easier” by denying self-representation. He noted that “[t]he dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one’s fate rather than a ward of the state — the dignity of individual choice.”