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Supreme Court hears arguments on competence in capital cases

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two related cases [JURIST report] on Tuesday. In Tibbals v. Carter [transcript, PDF], the court considered the "right to competence" in habeas corpus cases and whether a federal district judge can order an indefinite stay of a habeas action under precedent set in Rees v. Peyton [text]. In Tibbals, the Solicitor General (SG) argued that habeas claims cannot be stayed indefinitely until a defendant is competent. In the present case, the SG stated that since Sean Carter's appeal was solely based on the record, he had no need of being competent for trial, but the government would approve limited stays "in situations where the prisoner's ability to effectively communicate with his counsel or to disclose evidence would be necessary to his claim." Carter's attorney argued for a bright line rule that is flexible for defendants, noting that there is a potential that meritorious claims that the defendant cannot communicate due to incompetence could be waived by time.

In Ryan v. Gonzales [transcript, PDF] the court considered whether habeas proceedings should be stayed pending a death row inmate's competence. The court focused more on if an inmate's incompetence and inability to assist his lawyer nullifies that he was provided counsel. The oral arguments for Ryan began largely as a continuation of the previous argument, with petitioner's attorney immediately focusing on Rees and its application to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) [text]. He argued that allowing these stays violates the AEDPA, which clearly intended to "speed up" the death penalty process. The respondent's attorney explained that there are too many ancillary claims in a habeas proceeding to decide without a competent client: "Well, in our particular case, we—we raise several claims in habeas—in habeas proceedings. We raise guilt claims, and we also raise sentencing claims. And it is often the case with our clients that, at their direction, they choose not to—not to pursue or do not want to pursue sentencing claims and want to only pursue guilt claims. So those are claims that are strictly on the record, and under the ABA guidelines the client is the ultimate decisionmaker as to where the particular representation is going. So that is a huge, all-encompassing decision that a client needs to make as to the ultimate outcome of his or her case."

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