SCOTUS Upholds (Subject to Limits) Right to Self-Representation

Criminal defendants cannot be forced to stand trial unless they are competent. In simple terms, that means the defendant must have sufficient cognitive ability to understand the basic proceedings (which usually means understanding "the judge decides things, my lawyer is here to help me, the other lawyer isn't" etc.) and to assist in the defense. The standard isn't high.

Defendants also have the right to represent themselves if they are competent to do so. A vexing question has been whether any defendant who is competent to stand trial is also competent to represent himself, or whether some additional degree of competence is required to permit self-representation.

The Supreme Court answered that question (pdf) today in a 7-2 decison:

This case focuses upon a criminal defendant whom a state court found mentally competent to stand trial if represented by counsel but not mentally competent to conduct that trial himself. We must decide whether in these circumstances the Constitution forbids a State from insisting that the defendant proceed to trial with counsel, the State thereby denying the defendant the right to represent himself. See U. S. Const., Amdt. 6; Faretta v. California, 422 U. S. 806 (1975). We conclude that the Constitution does not forbid a State so to insist.

Indiana wanted the Court to overrule the Faretta decision, which recognized the right to self-representation. The majority opinion declined to do so, noting that legitimate concerns about unfair trials (a prosecutor taking advantage of a defendant who doesn't understand the rules of evidence or procedure) can be overcome and that the few defendants who choose to have a fool for a client by representing themselves actually do pretty well. Citing a law review article, the Court observed:

of the small number of defendants who chose to proceed pro se—“roughly 0.3% to 0.5%” of the total, state felony defendants in particular “appear to have achieved higher felony acquittal rates than their represented counterparts in that they were less likely to have been convicted of felonies”

Perhaps sincerity overcomes skill and experience.

If you were wondering, the dissenting justices were Scalia and Thomas.

< Ras FL Poll: McCain By 8 | Steny's Surrender On FISA A Done Deal >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Chris/Jeralyn (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Steve M on Thu Jun 19, 2008 at 10:56:06 AM EST
    What are your thoughts on the concept of "standby counsel"?

    Thomas (none / 0) (#2)
    by This from a broad on Thu Jun 19, 2008 at 11:29:24 AM EST
    Clarence Thomas does whatever Scalia tells him to do.  Has he ever not voted with Scalia?  I would be interested to know.  

    Heh (none / 0) (#3)
    by Steve M on Thu Jun 19, 2008 at 11:38:47 AM EST
    Thomas and Scalia don't vote together any more often than many other combinations of Justices that share an affinity on ideological grounds.


    Why not just out and out call him a brainless black guy?  IMO, your comment is an embarassment to yourself and this list.

    Actually ... (none / 0) (#5)
    by TChris on Thu Jun 19, 2008 at 01:05:18 PM EST
    if you look at their opinions over the last couple of years, you'll find that they do not always vote in tandem.  And I'm baffled at what Thomas' race has to do with anything.  Being offensive for the sake of being offensive isn't allowed here.