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.

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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.

Breyer had to contend with Faretta's reasoning, however, that a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to represent himself is grounded in notions of individual autonomy and, implicitly, human dignity. His opinion concedes that those concerns underpin the right of self-representation. But Breyer found them insufficient when weighed against a different sort of indignity. "The spectacle that could well result from self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling," he wrote. "Moreover, insofar as a defendant's lack of capacity threatens an improper conviction … self-representation undercuts the most basic of the Constitution's criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial."

Justice Scalia, writing in dissent for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas, and channeling Ayn Rand, took the opposite view. Even though defendants who represent themselves usually harm their cases, the "choice must be honored out of 'that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law,' " Scalia wrote. He said that the indignity a defendant suffers by making a fool of himself in court is of less concern than "the supreme dignity of being master of one's fate rather than a ward of the State—the dignity of individual choice." Scalia concluded, "Whatever else may be said of those who wrote the Bill of Rights, surely there can be no doubt that they understood the inestimable worth of free choice." Could any general counsel to the ACLU have said it better? (Evidently not. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once had that job but sided with the Breyer majority in Edwards.)

In short, Breyer is appalled at the prospect of a mentally ill person being paraded to debase himself in a proceeding he can't intelligently navigate. Scalia is equally dismayed at the Kafkaesque prospect of suspending constitutional rights because Important State Officials know best about what makes a fair trial. In the end, Scalia got this one right, and Breyer got it wrong. While both Justices consider the defendant's dignity, Breyer's concern is ultimately about the criminal justice process, while Scalia's is about the individual with skin in the game.

Breyer's majority opinion also has the disadvantage of rendering murky what once was clear in a number of respects. Going forward, mental health evaluators will have the burden of deciding whether some defendants are competent to plead guilty without counsel but aren't competent to plead not guilty on their own. And there is also the unhappy possibility that the court's ruling will primarily serve to conceal from public view the limited capacity of some defendants. A mentally ill defendant who has been found barely competent but can't represent himself despite his wish to do so won't have the opportunity to expose his relative incapacity the same way he might if he were standing up in court. In that manner, compulsory counsel operates not just as a controller of the accused's defense but also as a screen that shields us from the truth of a defendant's limitations.

At the same time there is a heartening aspect of Edwards. The concept of human dignity, explicit nowhere in the Constitution but implicit everywhere, was the touchstone of the court's debate about what the Constitution should mean for defendants like Ahmad Edwards. Breyer and Scalia disagreed about how best to protect his dignity. But they were both asking the right question. If we're to look, for a concept that animates the Constitution's provisions regarding our relationship to our government, we could surely choose worse than "fulfillment of human dignity."

Cullen D. Seltzer is an attorney with SeltzerGreene PLC in Richmond, Va., and an adjunct law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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