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Competency and death-row challenges

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 two 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 extraordinarily 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, also accepted review of Ryan v. Gonzales (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 Gonzales, 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 Gonzales 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.

The Louisiana case seeking to force a recount of the U.S. population as of 2010 involved a lawsuit filed directly in the Supreme Court, without any prior activity in a lower court, under the Constitution’s narrow grant of authority to the Court to actually try some cases on its own.   The Court has discretion whether to allow such a case to proceed to a trial, or to simply turn it aside.   The plea to file was denied in a one-sentence order, with no indication that any Justice had objected to the denial.

Louisiana had contended that the Constitution limits the ten-year census to people who actually have a right to be in the U.S., and undocumented immigrants do not share that right even though some 11 million of them do live in the U.S.   The census provides the population base for allotting the seats that states get in the House of Representatives (every state, regardless of population, gets two seats in the Senate).  Louisiana argued that the undocumented immigrants are not evenly distributed across the country, but are concentrated mainly in a few states.  With those aliens counted, a state’s population can increase to the point that it gains seats, at the expense of a state — like Louisiana — with comparatively few such immigrants.

The government urged the Supreme Court not to let the case go forward before the Justices.  It argued that the census, from the very first count in 1790, has always counted every one living in the U.S., because the Constitution speaks in terms of the “whole number of people in each state.”  But the government also argued that federal District Courts are in a better position than would the Supreme Court be to sort out the facts about how the census is counted, and the resulting shift in seats in the House.  Its reply noted that two prior cases on the same issue were filed in District Courts, but were dismissed because those who sued did not have a legal right to file such a lawsuit.

The Louisiana lawsuit appeared to have been prompted by the same political sentiment that has led a number of state legislatures to pass laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants living within their borders.  The Supreme Court is scheduled to review in April a controversial Arizona law that takes that approach, in the case of Arizona v. U.S. (11-182).

Besides rebuffing the Louisiana lawsuit, the Justices on Monday turned aside a couple of new cases involving continuing legal controversies — an attempt by religious student organizations at San Diego State University to gain official campus recognition, after being banned under a campus anti-discrimination policy (Alpha Delta Chi, et al., v. Reed, et al., 11-744)., and an attempt by a St. Louis man to revive a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church in his city for allegedly allowing a priest who molests children to have access to them in church activities.   The man claimed he was a victim as a young boy of that priest’s abuse.  A state court in Missouri said his case could not proceed, because it would involve the courts in second-guessing religious beliefs and practices.  The case was Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St.Louis, et al. (11-840).



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Competency and death-row challenges, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 19, 2012, 1:28 PM),