Mental Competency in Federal Habeas Proceedings Before the Supreme Court

On October 9 the Supreme Court will consider two cases involving questions of mental competency in federal habeas proceedings.

How important is mental competency in federal habeas proceedings? These two cases, TIBBALS v. CARTER and RYAN v. GONZALES, may set important precedents. The American Bar Association (ABA) has submitted a brief as amicus curiae supporting the respondents in both cases. The ABA position is that the statutory right to an attorney under 18 U.S.C. § 3599 includes an effective attorney-client relationship. They maintain that the statute requires that a federal defendant or habeas petitioner be sufficiently competent to assist counsel in prosecuting his claims. If the prisoner is not mentally competent, then he should be entitled to an appropriate stay. The ABA requests that the decisions of the Courts of Appeals for the Sixth and Ninth Circuits be affirmed.


On October 9 the Court will listen to oral argument in Docket No. 11-218, TIBBALS v. CARTER. Terry Tibbals is the Warden, and Sean Carter is seeking federal habeas relief. At issue here is whether capital prisoners have a right to a stay if they lack mental competency in federal habeas proceedings, and whether a federal district court can order an indefinite stay of those proceedings under the 1966 case of Rees v. Peyton (384 U.S. 312).


Also on October 9, Ernest Valencia Gonzales will have his day before the Supreme Court. Several years after Gonzales’s counsel initiated federal habeas proceedings it was determined that Gonzales was incompetent to communicate rationally. Counsel asked that the proceedings should be indefinitely stayed pending restoration of competency. 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief “shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys.” At issue here is whether the Ninth Circuit erred when it held that this statute entitles a death row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings if he is not competent to assist counsel? Charles L. Ryan is the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, where Gonzales is incarcerated.

Here the Sixth and Ninth Circuits agree that mental competency in federal habeas proceedings plays a critical role under the Sixth Amendment, by which defendants are entitled to the assistance of legal counsel. Where mental competency is lacking to the extent that a defendant cannot work with counsel to assist in his defense, is the defendant entitled to a stay? These cases may decide the issue for all US courts and future challengers. Criminal defense attorneys across the nation will be paying attention to these cases.

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