WASHINGTON — A landmark Supreme Court decision 33 years ago gave criminal defendants the right to represent themselves at trial.
The right to proceed without a lawyer, the court said then, was a logical corollary to the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. If the Constitution gave people the right to a lawyer, the justices reasoned, then it necessarily gave them to right to dispense with one, as well.
But what about a defendant who is mentally ill and who, although technically competent to stand trial, has come to the perhaps delusional conclusion that he is better off without a lawyer?
That was the question for the court during an argument on Wednesday. The court’s precedents suggest that the standards for competence to stand trial and competence to represent oneself are one and the same. But at least some justices appeared convinced that the issue required a fresh look.
The case is an appeal by the State of Indiana from a ruling by its State Supreme Court that a judge violated a defendant’s right to self-representation by refusing to let him proceed without a lawyer.
The defendant, Ahmad Edwards, was a schizophrenic who was originally deemed incompetent to stand trial on a charge of attempted murder. After two prolonged hospitalizations over nearly three years, Mr. Edwards was found competent to stand trial.
Represented by a court-imposed lawyer, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The Indiana Supreme Court held that Mr. Edwards’s competency to stand trial meant that he was competent to represent himself. In its appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208, the state included in its brief excerpts some motions Mr. Edwards filed with the trial court that led the judge to conclude that he should not be permitted to represent himself.
For example, one "motion to dismiss" included this sentence: "Defendant prays Psalm 15.5 for innocent of court property to be dismissed wherefore, so shall it be done."
Addressing the justices, the Indiana solicitor general, Thomas M. Fisher, said the judge was "justified in requiring a higher level of competency for self-representation in order to prevent the trial of Ahmad Edwards from descending into a farce."
Justice Antonin Scalia, the member of the court who takes the broadest view of various rights under the Sixth Amendment, challenged Mr. Fisher to explain why the judge could not have waited to see how Mr. Edwards would actually handle himself.
"By waiting to see if in fact he will turn the trial into a farce," Justice Scalia said, "you avoid the risk of depriving him of his right to represent himself, which is certainly a very important constitutional right."
Justice Scalia had a similar exchange with Michael R. Dreeben, a deputy United States solicitor general, who argued for the federal government on Indiana’s behalf. Mr. Dreeben said the court should not adhere to a rigid rule that would "force the state to have the train wreck occur when the evidence is very firm and reliable that it will occur."
He said the state’s interest lay in "starting the trial from the beginning in a coherent and orderly way and not subjecting the defendant to the risk of an unfair trial based on the defendant’s own incompetence."
Justice Stephen G. Breyer was among the justices most sympathetic to the state’s argument. Defendants representing themselves "do surprisingly well," Justice Breyer said, citing a study noted in a brief filed by the American Psychiatric Association. But, he added, "there is a small subclass" of defendants who fare badly on their own.
Why not have "a rule which permitted a state to deal with this subclass of disturbed people who want to represent themselves?" Justice Breyer asked Mark T. Stancil, the lawyer for Mr. Edwards. "This is a perfect instance where the states should experiment." Mr. Stancil replied that such an approach "undermines the fundamental premise of the Sixth Amendment, which is it’s his defense."
He offered examples of his client’s evident understanding of the proceedings. That provoked a dismissive comment from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who said, "There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam."
The standard for competence to stand trial, formulated in a 1960 Supreme Court decision, Dusky v. United States, is fairly basic. It requires that a defendant have "sufficient present ability to consult with lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and a "rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him."
Mr. Fisher, the Indiana solicitor general, said the standard for competency to represent oneself should require more, "that it is within the state’s authority to override this right where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or the jury."
To that, Justice Scalia responded: "Cannot communicate coherently? I sometimes think that the lawyers cannot communicate coherently."