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High court: limits to defend oneself in court

Justices rule 7 to 2 that some defendants aren't competent enough to represent themselves.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2008



Washington

Criminal defendants do not have a constitutional right to represent themselves in court when a judge determines their mental capabilities aren't up to the task of producing the appearance of a fair trial.

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In a major 7-to-2 decision announced on Thursday, the US Supreme Court carved out an exception to the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of the assistance of counsel – or to choose to have no counsel at all.

The high court ruled against a man diagnosed with mental illness who was found by a judge to be competent to stand trial on an attempted murder charge but deemed not competent enough to fire his court-appointed lawyer and represent himself at the trial.

The judge found that the defendant lacked certain "abilities" – such as legal expertise and communications skills – to mount an effective defense.

In agreeing with the trial judge and ruling against defendant Ahmad Edwards, the majority justices said the Sixth Amendment right to represent oneself is not an absolute right. Judges may prevent certain defendants under certain circumstances from serving as their own lawyers in the interest of justice to help safeguard what the judge perceives as a fair trial.

"The Constitution permits judges to take realistic account of the particular defendant's mental capacities by asking whether a defendant who seeks to conduct his own defense at trial is mentally competent to do so," writes Justice Stephen Breyer in the majority opinion.

"The Constitution permits States 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," Justice Breyer writes.

The decision establishes for the first time a two-tier system of determining competency for criminal defendants. Even if a defendant is found mentally competent enough to stand trial, that finding doesn't automatically entitle the defendant to exercise what had been a Sixth Amendment right to serve as his own lawyer.

Under prior rules, the defendant would have to be deemed disruptive in open court to lose the right to self-representation. Thursday's opinion includes no such requirement.

Justice Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment, the Court's opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct," Justice Scalia writes.

"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," he says.

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