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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.

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At issue in the case, Indiana v. Edwards, was whether the Supreme Court should adopt a new rule providing for a second level of competency to determine when certain individuals with mental or other disabilities are entitled to represent themselves at trial.

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The difficulty arises in cases when a judge has determined a person is mentally competent to stand trial. That standard isn't particularly high. The defendant must be able to understand the charges and help the lawyer mount a defense to those charges.

Being found competent to stand trial does not mean the defendant isn't laboring under substantial mental or other disabilities. If represented by counsel, sometimes the extensive scope of those disabilities can be partly masked or completely hidden from the jury. But when a mentally disabled defendant decides to represent himself, the judge and jury are confronted with a practical problem. Can a mentally ill defendant who chooses to represent himself receive a fair trial?

Some legal analysts say the right to defend oneself could facilitate a form of court-assisted suicide in some death-penalty cases. Others say mentally disabled defendants retain a right to plead guilty and accept the consequences of that action. The self-representation right is no different, they say.

Court rules require certain procedures and decorum. A defendant serving as his own lawyer who is disruptive could be removed and standby counsel appointed to take over. But should a judge deny a defendant the opportunity to defend himself because the judge believes the defendant might not do as well as a lawyer?

In his majority opinion, Breyer declined to rely on a single standard of trial competency. But he offered no guidance on how judges should determine competence to serve as one's lawyer. Instead, the majority opinion focuses on the importance of maintaining the dignity and fairness of criminal proceedings.

"In our view, a right to self-representation at trial will not affirm the dignity of a defendant who lacks the mental capacity to conduct his defense without the assistance of counsel," Breyer writes. "Proceedings must not only be fair, they must appear fair to all who observe them."

Scalia says the majority misuses the word dignity. "The 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."

In other decisions Monday, the high court ruled 7 to 1 that when older workers are disproportionately affected by an employment decision, the employer bears the burden of explaining whether there was a reasonable explanation other than age for the company's action. The case involved workers over 40 who challenged their dismissals at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. The decision makes it easier for employees to prove that they have suffered discrimination because of their age.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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