Lyle Denniston over at ScotusBlog last March wrote "a quarter century ago the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute an insane individual, extending that ban in 2002 to the mentally retarded. In 1966, it ruled that federal courts should not allow a death-row inmate to give up any legal challenges while he was mentally ill, but it has never decided whether an individual has any right, under the Constitution or any federal law, to actually be competent in order to take part in a federal habeas review of his case or to have the case put off indefinitely” --- Up until now.
The cases were Ryan v. Gonzales, No. 10–930, from Arizona's 9th. Circuit, combined with Tibbals v. Carter, No. 11–218, from Ohio's 6th. Circuit, with the Court unanimously holding on Jan. 8th. that ,"at some point, the State must be allowed to defend its judgment of conviction [not implicating the prohibition against " 'carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.'" Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U. S. 930, 934 (2007) (quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 409–410 (1986)) ] …. If a district court concludes that the petitioner's claim could substantially benefit from the petitioner's assistance, the district court should take into account the likelihood that the petitioner will regain competence in the foreseeable future. Where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate and merely frustrates the State's attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment." ( Ryan v. Gonzales, 10-930 )
Mr. Denniston's recapitulation of the Court's Jan. 8th. decision noted "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, some 42 years ago, 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.
[ The Court's ruling here held ] "the actions taken 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 ....
"Although the Court did not say so explicitly, this new decision 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."
An interesting note here might be what NBCNews, back on Nov. 26th., phrased was the Supreme Court's turning down its opportunity to consider whether states can ban the insanity defense in criminal cases. That case was Delling v. Idaho -- Idaho being one of four states in the nation not allowing an insanity plea. Delling's lawyers "argued that the Constitution's guarantee of due process demands the insanity defense be available because it has strong roots in the legal system. And, they said, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment 'forbids criminal punishment that violates broadly and deeply held Anglo-American legal practices.' Idaho defended its statute, which banned the defense in 1982, contending that "moral incapacity is only one of four different historical approaches to insanity in criminal cases, no one of which is constitutionally required."
While the Court declined to hear Delling, Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined in dissenting from the Court's denial of Delling's petition for certiorari. (Here)