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.
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.
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.
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.