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Opinion recap: Rees clarified, after forty-six years


For more than forty-six years, the Supreme Court’s brief rulings in the Virginia death row case of Melvin Davis Rees, Jr., have remained in the Supreme Court’s records, but few have paid attention to them since and their meaning was never clarified.  The Justices finally did so on Tuesday, ruling that the actions it took in Rees v. Peyton in 1966 and 1967 did not give state prisoners a right to delay their federal court challenges until they are mentally competent enough to proceed.   No federal law, the Court decided unanimously, gives an incompetent state prisoner any right to keep a habeas case on hold until he can regain mental understanding of what is going on.   The habeas case can go ahead with just the lawyers involved, the ruling said.

Although the Court did not say so explicitly, the new decision in Ryan v. Gonzales (10-930) also appeared to mean that state prisoners have no freestanding right to be competent so that they can take part when their case gets into a federal habeas court — an issue separate from whether they had a right to a delay while they remain incompetent.  (Decided along with the Ryan case, from Arizona, was a companion case from Ohio, Tibbals v. Carter, 11-218.)  Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the nine-to-zero decision.

The Rees case of nearly five decades ago has been one of the Court’s most abiding mysteries.   After ordering a test of his mental capacity, and then being told that Rees was incompetent, the Court in 1967 simply placed his case in a state of perpetual inactivity — until Rees died in prison, some twenty-eight years later, in 1995.  Then, the Court responded by dismissing his case in two words.

Rees v. Peyton came back before the Court this Term, though, in death row cases involving Ernest Valencia Gonzales of Arizona and Sean Carter of Ohio.    Gonzales was given a death sentence after killing a man and wounding his wife in a stabbing attack during a burglary of their home, and Carter was sentenced to die for the murder and rape of his adoptive grandmother.

The Ninth Circuit Court and the Sixth Circuit Court, relying on different federal statutes and both relying in part on what the Supreme Court had done in Rees v. Peyton, had concluded that a finding of incompetence for both men justified a postponement of their federal habeas cases until they could regain competence.   The Ninth Circuit cited a law that gives a right to a free lawyer in a habeas case involving a death row inmate, and the Sixth Circuit relied on a law that gives federal judges the authority to order the hospitalization of a mentally incompetent individual facing a criminal trial.

Justice Thomas’s opinion, significantly playing down the role that a convicted individual may play in a federal habeas case, concluded that neither statute authorized stays of habeas proceedings.  Most such cases, the opinion said, are based upon the record made in state court as the case went through a trial and state appeals.   “Attorneys,” the Court said, “are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors, and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.”

No one who is incompetent at the time can be tried, the opinion noted, but habeas proceedings are not the equivalent of a criminal trial.   The Court also said that an attempt to tie the mental competency issue to the right to a lawyer is a flawed approach, since there is no Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer during a habeas case, and so the only possible source of a judge’s authority to assure that the convicted state prisoner can consult with his lawyer during a habeas case would be a federal statute, and none exists.

Turning to its opinion and orders in the Rees case, the opinion said those did not establish a statutory right to a delay of habeas proceedings for an incompetent individual.   Its first order in that case, in 1966, the Court said, “concerned whether an incompetent habeas petitioner may withdraw his certiorari petition, and it provides no clear answer even to that question.”

Similarly, the second, brief order in 1967, Thomas wrote, “offered no rationale for the decision to hold Rees’ petition.   As a result, Rees offers no support for federal habeas petitioners seeking to stay district court proceedings.”

Although the lawyers involved in the Gonzales case told the Court that these new cases only involved the issue of staying a habeas case while a state prisoner is incompetent, so the Court need not decide the question of whether there is a separate right to competency during habeas.  But, in a footnote, the Thomas opinion implied that the grant of review did embrace that question, too, and the opinion left little doubt that no such right exists.

The decision did not entirely take away the authority of federal judges, using their equitable powers separate from any statutory text, to order a delay in a habeas case when a state prisoner is found to be incompetent at the time.  Leaving the choice of when to exercise that power to federal judges, the opinion remarked: “We do not presume that district courts need unsolicited advice from us on how to manage their dockets.”

Still, Justice Thomas said that district judges do have the authority to rule on whether a claim made in habeas could benefit from having the prisoner able to communicate with his lawyer about it, but in considering whether to use that power, judges should take into account whether the individual is likely “to regain competence in the foreseeable future.”  If there is “no reasonable hope of competence,” a habeas case should not be delayed, the Court concluded.  To issue a stay in that situation, it added, “merely frustrates the state’s attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment.”

This decision, in plain English:

An individual who is convicted of a crime in state court has a number of opportunities to challenge the conviction and the sentence, first in state court and, if that is unsuccessful, in a federal court.   In federal court, that right is found in the ancient promise that a person being held in captivity by the government has a right to compel the government to justify that detention. That is called the right to a “writ of habeas corpus” — a Latin phrase that generally translates as “you have the body” and must justify holding it.

If lawyers for a state prisoner have taken the case into federal court, the case plays out there under a series of legal rules.   Sometimes, those rules are not entirely clear, and courts have to clarify them.   In two cases decided on Tuesday, the Supreme Court was asked to clarify those rules when the state prisoner involved in the case is found to have become mentally incompetent, and thus is unable to help his lawyer pursue the legal challenge to his conviction and sentence.  Two federal appeals courts had ruled that, if the prisoner has in fact become incompetent, the federal case should simply be put on hold until that individual regains mental competence.   Without the capacity to aid his lawyer, the prisoner’s challenge is essentially undermined, and so is his right to a lawyer, those lower courts ruled.

The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the lower courts were wrong.  There is no constitutional right to have a lawyer at all during federal court review of state convictions, so any right to a lawyer, and the consequences of having access to a lawyer, must depend upon whether there is a federal law that promises legal assistance while an individual is mentally incompetent.   There is no such law, the Court ruled, that assures that an individual has a right to aid his lawyer during the federal proceeding when the individual is incompetent, so there is no right to have the case put on hold until the individual might regain the mental capacity to participate.

In reaching its decision, the Court noted that it had once put a Virginia state prisoner’s case on hold for twenty-eight years, because the man was incompetent.  But it concluded that the actions it took in that case did not set a precedent for delaying a federal case involving a state prisoner who had become incompetent.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Rees clarified, after forty-six years, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 8, 2013, 12:59 PM),