The Supreme Court a quarter century ago ruled that it would be unconstitutional
to execute an insane individual, and it decided in 2002 to extend that ban to
the mentally retarded. Earlier, in 1966, it had ruled that federal courts
should not allow a death-row inmate to give up any legal challenges while he
was mentally ill. But the Court has never decided whether an individual has any
right, under the Constitution or any federal law, to actually be competent in
order to take part in a federal habeas review of his case or to have the case
put off indefinitely. On Monday, it agreed to rule on those issues, accepting
new cases from Arizona and Ohio.
Those were the only cases granted review following last week’s private
Conference. In another significant order, the Court refused, without comment,
to allow the state of Louisiana to pursue directly before the Justices its
claim that the Census Bureau acts unconstitutionally when it counts
undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Louisiana contended that including
those without a legal right to remain in the country as part of the U.S.
population gives states with a high percentage of such immigrants an unfair
right to added seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The case was
Louisiana, et al., v. Bryson, et al. (docket 140 Original). The Court’s refusal
to hold a trial on that issue does not bar Louisiana from seeking to raise it
in a lower federal court.
The Justices’ agreement to take on 2 new death-row cases brings the Court back
to an exploration of the rights of individuals who have been sentenced to death
in murder cases and then are found to be mentally incompetent. If they are
actually insane, they cannot be executed, under the Court’s 1986 decision in
Ford v. Wainwright. The mentally retarded were also shielded from execution by
the 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Those rulings meant flat bans on the
death penalty. But the Court has not sorted out what other legal rights the
mentally ill on death row have when, having failed in challenges in state
court, they turn to federal courts to press their legal claims.
Officials in 17 states joined in urging the Court to spell out what a federal
court is to do in a habeas case when a death-row inmate is found to be
incapable — because of a mental defect — of helping out his lawyers in pursuing
a habeas challenge. State officials object to having such a case put on hold
indefinitely, because it leaves the state uncertain about whether it can carry
out death sentences. Such cases, they argue, should proceed to decisions on
whether the inmate has any valid complaint about his state trial, and do so
whether the inmate takes part or not.
Ohio officials, in their appeal in one of the two new cases, argued that a
Sixth Circuit Court ruling ordering an indefinite delay will bring “Ohio’s
capital litigation to a halt. Under the Sixth Circuit’s extraordiinarily loose
standards, any prisoner can make a minimal showing of incompetence, demand a
hearing, and secure an indefinite stay of his habeas proceedings.”
That argument came in Tibbals v. Carter (docket 11-218), urging the Supreme
Court to clarify what it meant in in a seldom-cited ruling decades ago in the
case of Rees v. Peyton. In its initial ruling in that case, in 1966, the Court
ordered a competency hearing for Virginia death-row inmate Melvin Davis Rees,
Jr., before it would decide whether to allow him to withdraw his court
challenge. In a brief order about a year later, it put the case on hold
indefinitely, and never again returned to it. Rees died in prison in 1995.
The Sixth Circuit interpreted the Rees decision, together with a federal law
allowing judges to order competency hearings for an accused individual before
proceeding with a trial, as creating a statutory right to be competent during a
habeas proceeding after a state conviction had become final. But the Circuit
Court said there was no constitutional right to be competent during state
death-penalty proceedings. It ordered an indefinite delay in a habeas case
involving Sean Carter, who was sentenced to death for murdering his 68-year-old
adoptive grandmother in 1997. After his state conviction became final, Carter
had sought a federal habeas remedy, but later was ruled by a federal judge to
be mentally incompetent to deal with his lawyers.
The Supreme Court on Monday granted Ohio’s petition in that case, and in a
separate order, aslo accepted review of Ryan v. Gonzalez (10-930), an appeal by
Arizona officials supported by 15 other states. In that case, the Ninth Circuit
Court found a right to be mentally competent during habeas proceedings, based
on a different federal law than the one cited by the Sixth Circuit in the
Carter case. The law at issue in the case of Ernest Valencia Gonzalez, an
Arizona death-row inmate, was a statute that provides a right to a lawyer for a
state prison inmate who is too poor to afford one in a federal habeas case.
Gonzalez, sentenced to death for a 1990 murder, later raised an issue of his
competence. When state officials took the case on to the Supreme Court,
Gonzalez had not yet had a competency hearing, but his habeas was was on hold.
The Supreme Court last year asked the Justice Department to provide the federal
government’s views on the Arizona petition. U.S. Solicitor General Donald B.
Verrilli, Jr., replied that, while the government disagreed with the Ninth
Circuit’s view that there was a right to be competent during a habeas case and
its view that the individual claiming incompetence had a right to an indefinite
delay of his case, the Gonzalez case was not a proper one for review of the
issue. He cited the fact that Gonzales’s competence had not yet been
established, and other procedural limitations.
The Justices, however, granted the Arizona officials’ petition. Both of the new
cases will be argued and decided in the case starting October 1.
(source: SCOTUS blog)