WASHINGTON — A mentally ill defendant who is nonetheless competent to stand trial is not necessarily competent to dispense with a lawyer and represent himself, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court said that judges could "take realistic account of the particular defendant's mental capacities" and, in the interest of achieving a fair trial, deny the constitutional right to self-representation that criminal defendants ordinarily enjoy.
The 7-2 decision overturned the Indiana Supreme Court, which had found that a schizophrenic man was entitled to a new trial on a charge of attempted murder because the trial judge had improperly denied his request to represent himself.
The defendant, Ahmad Edwards, who was sometimes quite coherent and at other times decidedly not so, had differed with his lawyer over defense strategy. He wanted to argue self-defense, while his lawyer wanted to present a defense based on lack of intent.
Edwards had fired a gun at a department store security officer after trying to steal a pair of shoes. He was found competent to stand trial after two psychiatric hospitalizations over three years.
A landmark Supreme Court decision in 1975, Faretta v. California, established the right to self-representation as a basic constitutional right.
Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the question in this case was answered neither by the Faretta decision, which did not involve a competency issue, nor by a subsequent decision that permitted a mentally ill defendant to waive the right to counsel and plead guilty.
Conducting a defense at trial without a lawyer's help requires a higher degree of competence, Breyer said.
Noting that the court has referred to the right to self-representation as an aspect of individual dignity, Breyer said dignity was lacking in the "spectacle that could well result" from a mentally ill defendant's efforts, which were "as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling."
Breyer said that rather than setting an all-encompassing definition of competency, the court would leave the decision to individual trial judges, who he said "will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individual circumstances of a particular defendant."
Indiana had asked the court simply to overrule the Faretta decision, which Breyer has criticized. But he said "recent empirical research" indicated that the decision was not, in fact, leading to unfair trials when defendants were mentally competent.
The decision, Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208, drew a vigorous dissenting opinion from Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Scalia said the treatment Edwards received in being denied to present the defense of his choice "seems to me the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness."
The only reason the court has previously accepted as valid for denying self-representation, Scalia said, was a threat to the orderliness of the trial. But Edwards was "respectful and compliant" and did not even have the chance to try representing himself, Scalia continued, adding, "The dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one's fate rather than a ward of the state — the dignity of individual choice."
Scalia said that "trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier" by appointing lawyers rather than giving mentally ill defendants a chance to proceed on their own.
"In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment," he said, "the court's opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct."