Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Supreme Parallel

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 22, 2008, ruled 7-2 that a person with a severe mental illness can be competent to stand trial but at the same time not competent enough to fire a lawyer and represent himself in court. The court used strong logic to reach this decision that will allow judges to “take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities.” The goal is a fair trial.

"A right of self-representation at trial will not affirm the dignity of a defendant who lacks the mental capacity to conduct his defense without the assistance of counsel," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority. "To the contrary, given that defendant's uncertain mental state, the spectacle that could well result from his self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling."

The case involved an Indiana man, Ahmad Edwards, who stood trial for attempted murder for firing shots outside an Indianapolis department store after attempting to steal shoes. Edwards suffers from schizophrenia and delusions.

The two dissenters in the case, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, put forward the familiar argument that it is better to be the master of one’s own fate than the ward of the state. In the instance of someone standing trial, however, having a legal representation rendered inadequate by the active symptoms of a severe mental illness would have the likely impact of making someone a ward of the state, potentially with a life sentence.

In many respects, the court house is not much different than the hospital. The ability to make decisions has a direct impact on the dignity of life. A noble notion does not always translate into a dignified or free life.

Without treatment, Edwards committed the preventable tragedy of shooting an innocent person. Without legal representation, the state would commit another tragedy of justice. Justice Breyer is correct in seeing it as more humiliating than ennobling, in the court room and in the doctor’s office.