A couple more notable cases heard by the Supreme Court last week were Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales, "examining the scope of the right to counsel and other such rights in death penalty cases in federal habeas courts in which the convicted individual's mental competency is at issue. That," Lyle Denniston at ScotusBlog said, "divides into a set of issues about legal representation, and a separate set of issues about competency and potential delays of the federal habeas case — possibly for years — until the individual is found to be mentally competent to proceed."
"Individuals accused of crimes have a constitutional right to a lawyer," Denniston's article continues " — and a free one if they cannot afford that on their own — at all significant stages of their cases, up to the point of conviction. That is true whether they are charged in state or federal court. Whether they have a similar right once they begin appeals to challenge their conviction or sentence is less certain. One thing, though, is clear: if a state prisoner uses up all appeal rights in state courts, and starts a challenge in federal habeas court, there is no guarantee of a right to a lawyer – unless the individual is facing a death sentence. But that is a right under a federal law, not the Sixth Amendment.
"A separate question about rights in a federal habeas case arises when the individual, or his lawyer, raises an issue of the convicted person’s mental competence to go forward with the case. The only constitutional right that the Supreme Court has recognized for mentally incompetent individuals convicted of crimes is that they cannot be given the death penalty; that was established in Ford v. Wainwright in 1986. Any 'right to competence' thus would have to be found, if at all, in a statute. That is a quite unsettled area of criminal law, and one of the reasons for that uncertainty is that the Supreme Court in 1966 and 1967 issued a decision and orders that have been understood in very different ways by lower courts. The Justices may now be ready to sort that out, along with other habeas law issues, in two new cases — one from Ohio, the other from Arizona."
"Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales arose against the background of the Justices' actions nearly fifty years ago in a Virginia death penalty case, Rees v. Peyton. A ruling in 1966 was the first of two significant actions by the Court in the case. Melvin Davis Rees, Jr., had been convicted of murder, and given a death sentence. Shortly after his case had reached the Supreme Court, Rees told his lawyers to drop the appeal and take no further action. His lawyers then told the Court they could not do that in good conscience, because they believed he was mentally incompetent and thus not able to make such a fateful decision for himself. The Court ordered that more evidence be gathered on his mental state.
"After a federal judge ruled that Rees was, in fact, mentally incompetent, the Supreme Court in 1967 — in its second action in the case – simply put Rees's petition on an indefinite hold. That hold, in fact, lasted for some twenty-eight years, until Rees died in 1995. Without ever having acted on his case, the Court then dismissed his petition. The meaning of those actions has almost never arisen again as an issue for the Supreme Court."
"Lawyers for Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales and Ohio death row inmate Sean Carter say yes, and that federal judges should have discretion to hold up proceedings until they're ready," local accounts conveyed, "but the federal government and some states argue there should be no delays in cases when the necessary information can be found in state trial records, and say there should be a time limit in all other instances."
Tibbals v. Carter