The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether a federal law on
the appointment of attorneys requires that death row inmates have their legal
proceedings put on hold if they are mentally incompetent to assist their
The justices agreed to hear a pair of cases from Arizona and Ohio and decide
the reach of a law that provides that a poor death row inmate pursuing a
federal appeal after conviction be entitled to the appointment of attorneys.
The Obama administration took the position in one of the cases that federal
courts have the inherent authority to put such proceedings on hold if the
inmate was mentally incompetent.
Administration lawyers said the law at issue neither categorically requires nor
rules out a stay of such proceedings. It said the law provided for the
appointment of an attorney but does not guarantee a right of mental competence
to assist the counsel in post-conviction appeals.
The case from Arizona involved Ernest Gonzales, who in 1991 was convicted of
murder and sentenced to death. In 1999, he filed a federal habeas appeal and an
attorney from the public defender's office was appointed to represent him under
the federal law.
His attorneys said in 2006 that he had become mentally incompetent and was
unable to assist them in the case. A U.S. court of appeals then put the
proceedings on holding pending a determination of his mental competency.
The case from Ohio involved a similar stay of post-conviction proceedings, this
time involving Sean Carter, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the
1997 murder of his adoptive grandmother.
An appeals court put on hold his federal habeas proceedings on the grounds he
suffered from mental illnesses, was incompetent and was unable to communicate
information to current attorneys who have been claiming ineffective assistance
of counsel by his trial lawyer.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the two cases during the term that
begins in October with a decision likely early next year.
The Supreme Court cases are Charles L. Ryan v. Ernest Valencia Gonzales, No.
10-930, and Terry Tibbals v. Sean Carter, No. 11-218.
For Ryan: John Todd, Arizona Assistant Attorney General.
For Gonzales: Leticia Marquez of the Office of the Federal Public Defender for
the District of Arizona.
For Tibbals: Alexandra Schimmer, Ohio Solicitor General.
For Carter: Linda Prucha, Supervisor of the Death Penalty Division, Ohio Public