Supreme Court Expands Judicial Discretion With Mentally Ill Defendants

August 1, 2008

The Supreme Court has staked out new legal ground by ruling that a judge has the right to deny a patient with schizophrenia (or anyone with a mental illness) the right to represent himself or herself in a trial-even though the court deemed him mentally qualified to stand trial.

The Supreme Court has staked out new legal ground by ruling that a judge has the right to deny a patient with schizophrenia (or anyone with a mental illness) the right to represent himself or herself in a trial-even though the court deemed him mentally qualified to stand trial. The decision in Indiana v Edwards by a vote of 7 to 2 went beyond previous Supreme Court decisions. The closest case was Godinez v Moran, in which a borderline-competent defendant asked the court to allow him to represent himself so as to change his plea; the Supreme Court said a court could “allow” this. The issue in Indiana v Edwards , however, was whether the Indiana trial court could “deny” Ahmad Edwards, a man with delusions and schizophrenia who fired shots outside an Indianapolis department store, the chance to defend himself.

Besides establishing that courts could deny a mentally ill defendant the right to defend himself, the court rejected the Indiana Supreme Court’s request that it establish a new, more specific standard that would “deny a criminal defendant the right to represent himself at trial where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.” Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said, “We are sufficiently uncertain, however, as to how that particular standard would work in practice to refrain from endorsing it as a federal constitutional standard here.”

Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said, “The court basically got it right.” But he wished the Supreme Court had gone further and established a new standard, as requested by the Indiana court, higher than the current standard-if a defendant can communicate coherently. “A defendant should be able to make some informed decisions on defense strategy and tactics at trial,” Hornberg explained. “I hope that the American Psychiatric Association and others use this as an opportunity to define what those standards are; that information and expertise should come from scientists and psychiatrists.”

The Indiana court also asked the Supreme Court to wipe away Faretta v California, the decision in which the highest court in the United States established that the 6th and 14th amendments to the Constitution allow a defendant to represent himself if he “voluntarily and intelligently decides to do so.” On that issue, Breyer said, “We decline to do so. We recognize that judges have sometimes expressed concern that Faretta, contrary to its intent, has led to trials that are unfair. But recent empirical research suggests that such instances are not common.”

On the key issue-whether a court can deny a mentally ill defendant the right to defend himself-Breyer explained that Godinez came closest to helping the justices decide Indiana v Edwards , but the Godinez defendant sought only to change his pleas to guilty. He did not seek to conduct trial proceedings, and his ability to conduct a defense at trial was expressly not at issue. “Thus we emphasized in Godinez that we needed to consider only the defendant’s ‘competence to waive the right.’ And we further emphasized that we need not consider the defendant’s ‘technical legal knowledge’ about how to proceed at trial.”