"Supreme Court Considers Indefinite Stays of Execution," is Adam Liptak's report in today's New York Times.
In a pair of cases argued Tuesday, the Supreme Court considered what to do when people convicted of capital crimes are mentally incompetent and so unable to help their lawyers with challenges to their convictions and sentences.
The lower courts in the two cases had imposed indefinite stays, saying the proceedings should wait until the prisoners regained their mental competency. There appeared to be little support among the justices for that approach. Some of them appeared to sense gamesmanship from defense lawyers effectively seeking to make sure that death sentences are never carried out.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he was skeptical of “a mechanism that will permit stays in virtually every capital case.” The mechanism was particularly problematic, he said, because “a lot of district judges and a lot of court of appeals judges don’t like the death penalty and will go to some length to prevent the imposition of that sentence.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to think that critique too harsh, though he seemed to agree that indefinite stays are improper. “Trial judges run their trials,” he said. “You know, that’s what they’re hired for. And once we make it clear” that stays “shouldn’t go on forever, why can’t we trust them to do their job?”
The Supreme Court has allowed the execution of death-row inmates so long as they are, in Justice Antonin Scalia’s words on Tuesday, “aware of what is being done and why it’s being done.”
The standard for being able to assist a lawyer is much tougher, he said, meaning that the stays imposed by the lower courts effectively overrode the execution standard.
"Supreme Court debates whether inmate incompetence can delay appeals in death penalty cases," is the AP filing, via the Washington Post.
The Supreme Court seemed inclined Tuesday to eliminate the authority of federal judges to indefinitely delay a death row inmate’s federal appeals in the hope that the convict would become mentally competent enough to help his or her lawyer with the appeals.
Inmates appealing state death sentences to federal court have a right to a lawyer. But the courts have never said whether the inmates have to be mentally competent enough to help their lawyers with their federal appeals.
Lawyers for Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales and Ohio death row inmate Sean Carter say the answer is yes, and urged the high court Tuesday to rule that federal judges have discretion to hold up proceedings until the inmates are ready. “The court’s answers should reflect the important principle that no individual should lose potentially meritorious claims because of mental illness,” said lawyer Scott Michelman, who represented Carter.
But justices spent considerable time talking about the differences in a proposed delay of six or nine months, or much as a year before ordering that the trial move forward.
SCOTUSblog analysis is, "Argument recap: Judges get no respect," posted by Lyle Denniston. Here's the beginning:
Well into an argument before the Supreme Court Tuesday morning, Justice Stephen G. Breyer blurted out, in quite a loud voice, “WHY?” He immediately apologized for the boisterousness of the question. It was, though, entirely appropriate in the circumstances: he was protesting why nearly everyone seemed to have totally lost confidence in the capacity of federal district judges to use discretion wisely. Those judges, indeed, were almost totally orphaned in two arguments on how to handle a federal habeas case when the state prisoner involved may be mentally incompetent.
There were essentially two issues before the Justices in the related cases of Tibbals v. Carter (docket 11-218) and Ryan v. Gonzales (10-930): when should a federal court put a hold on a state prisoner’s habeas claim when a competency question arises, and how long should such a delay be? Justice Breyer may have been the only one on the bench who seemed to feel very strongly that this was something district judges could easily handle, and be trusted to do so. Most of the Court was pursuing some limits that it could impose on those judges.
The two cases reached the Court on state appeals protesting indefinite delays issued by lower courts in habeas cases in which state inmates were contesting their convictions for murder. In each case, because of claims of incompetence, the stay was to last until the inmate’s mental health had been sufficiently restored that he could cooperate with his lawyer in pursuing his claims. Lawyers for the states of Ohio and Arizona and a lawyer for the federal government contended that there should never be indefinite stays, no matter what the circumstances, and in no case should a stay be longer than, say, a year.
It did not take long in the hearings for it to become clear that most of the Justices were sympathetic to the idea of fairly strict limitations, and that the Court itself probably would never again do what it did in 1967 in the case of Rees v. Peyton: impose a stay in a death penalty case involving an incompetent individual, with the delay remaining in effect for some twenty-eight years, lifted only when the man died in prison. The case of Melvin Davis Rees hung over Tuesday’s session like an uninvited house guest.
"Supreme Court Considers Competency in Death Penalty Cases," at Stateline - Pew Center on the States, by Maggie Clark.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (October 9) heard arguments from Ohio and Arizona that federal judges should not be allowed to indefinitely stay a death sentence even if there are questions about an inmate’s mental competency.
“The state has a powerful interest in the finality its conviction and sentence,” argued Alexandra Schimmer, Ohio’s solicitor general, in the Tibbals v. Carter case challenging a stay imposed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “Ohio has been standing at the ready for 10 years to defend the judgment of its state courts in this case.”
A key issue for the court to decide is whether death row defendants have the right to assist in their defense during their federal habeas corpus claim, which is filed after they’ve been sentenced to death by a state court. Arizona and Ohio argued Tuesday that there is no specific right for a defendant to assist his or her lawyer, and federal courts should not put a death penalty case on hold indefinitely while attempts are made to restore a defendant back to mental competency.
ABA Journal posts, "High Court Appears Skeptical of Indefinite Stays for Competency in Capital Appeals," by Debra Cassens Weiss.
In oral arguments on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared unlikely to uphold indefinite stays when inmates lack competency to aid their lawyers in capital appeals.
Lawyers for death-row inmates Ernest Gonzales of Arizona and Sean Carter of Ohio argued that inmates must be mentally competent to assist their appellate lawyers, the Associated Press reports. The justices, however, focused on a second question: the propriety of indefinite stays in such cases.
The Arizona Daily Star profiles the defense attorney in Ryan v. Gonzales in, "Neto's Tucson: Attorney to get day in court - the big court." It's by Ernesto Portillo Jr.
Leticia Marquez, a federal public defense attorney, is a bit nervous this weekend as she preps for a Tuesday court case. It will be unlike any case she's had before.
She'll stand in front of nine jurists - the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It's a real big deal," said Marquez last week in a telephone call from Washington, D.C., where she is preparing her case. That's an understatement.
It's historic for this University of Arizona graduate and daughter of Mexican immigrants.
Marquez, 43, might be the first Tucson Latina attorney to argue a case before the highest court in the country. Nationally, she could be the 16th Latina in history, according to a February article in the National Law Journal.
The Supreme Court established standards to assess whether severely mentally ill inmates are competent to be executed in the 1986 case, Ford v. Wainwright; more via Oyez.