The Supreme Court on dignity.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 29 2008 5:03 PM

Let Them Be Lawyers

The Supreme Court on the dignity of the mentally ill.

Antonin Scalia. Click image to expand.
Justice Antonin Scalia

Indiana v. Edwards, decided at the end of the Supreme Court term, hasn't gotten a lot of press. Ostensibly, it's about a technical matter of criminal procedure—the Sixth Amendment right to represent yourself in a criminal trial. But the case deserves a close look because at root it's about the nature of human dignity, a term that appears nowhere in the Constitution yet permeates its meaning. Plus, this June sleeper features a lesson by Justice Antonin Scalia to liberals on the court about what civil liberties should mean.

Ahmad Edwards is a schizophrenic. In 1999, he came to the attention of the Indiana police after he tried to steal a pair of shoes from a department store. When he was discovered, he shot at a store security officer and wounded a bystander.


After Edwards' arrest, there were periods of time when his mental illness made him so addled that he could neither understand the charges against him nor aid in his defense. By that measure, he was legally incompetent to stand trial. The state of Indiana spent the better portion of the next six years medicating and treating Edwards so that he might be lucid enough to be found competent. In 2005, a judge finally found that Edwards met that standard.

Competence meant going to trial. Edwards, determined to take his newfound stability out for a spin, asked to represent himself. He told the trial judge that his court-appointed lawyer wasn't spending enough time on the case, wasn't sharing with Edwards legal materials for use in the defense, and wanted to pursue a line of defense with which Edwards didn't agree. In response, the trial judge said that Edwards was "competent to stand trial, but I'm not going to find he's competent to defend himself." In short, the judge forced Edwards to accept representation by a lawyer Edwards didn't want along with a defense in which Edwards didn't believe.

If that result sounds odd, it should. In 1975, in Faretta v. California, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution, by operation of the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of the right to counsel in a criminal case, entitles a defendant to represent himself if he "voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so." Faretta notwithstanding, the Indiana trial judge found Edwards was competent enough to understand the proceedings against him and could assist in his defense but was nevertheless not competent enoughto represent himself.

By a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court agreed with the Indiana trial judge. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, reasoned that being competent to stand trial, and even to plead guilty, required less mental faculty than being competent "to conduct trial proceedings." The majority emphasized that mental illness varies by degree and over time and that litigating a case can be a complicated and difficult matter, only more so if the person handling it is mentally ill. With those considerations in mind, Breyer reasoned that a trial judge ought to have the discretion to require a mentally ill defendant to go to trial with an attorney.


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