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Is There a Right to Competence in a Federal Habeas Proceeding?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

When the Nine return to the bench on Tuesday, the topic du jour will be habeas corpus.

The Court will kick off its second week of the October sitting with two habeas appeals: Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales.

In the first case, Tibbals v. Carter, the Court will consider a Sixth Circuit decision postponing convicted murderer Sean Carter's appeals until he is competent to participate in the proceedings.

Carter was convicted in 1997 of raping and murdering his adoptive grandmother. In late 2007, he was transferred from death row at Chillicothe Correctional Institution to Oakwood Correctional Facility, a psychiatric prison, due to declining mental competency. He has since returned to Chillicothe, but former District Judge Peter Economus dismissed the prosecutors' filing to have Carter returned to death row.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Economus. Prosecutors, however, oppose indefinite postponement of appeals pending competency, warning that prisoners could easily exploit the rule to evade the death penalty.

In the second case, Ryan v. Gonzales, the Court will decide whether 18 USC § 3599, which provides for the appointment of counsel to represent indigent death row inmates in habeas appeals, also allows the defendants to stay habeas proceedings until competent to participate in the proceedings.

The appellee in the case, Ernest Gonzales, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1991.

Gonzales filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court in November 1999. In 2006, his counsel moved to stay the proceedings pending a competency determination, arguing that right to counsel includes the right to competence during habeas proceedings when a capital habeas petitioner "raises claims that could potentially benefit from his ability to communicate rationally." Based on its Nash v. Ryan decision, the Ninth Circuit held that Gonzales was entitled to a stay pending a competency determination.

The Supreme Court's analysis in both of next week's cases could turn on Rees v. Peyton, a 1966 decision.

In Rees, the Court ordered a competency hearing for Virginia death-row inmate Melvin Davis Rees, Jr. before it would decide whether to allow him to withdraw his court challenge. In a brief order about a year later, it put the case on hold indefinitely, and never again returned to it, SCOTUSblog reports.

Since Warren Court somewhat abandoned Rees, it's harder to argue that the Roberts Court should be bound by stare decisis on the issue. We're guessing that a majority of the justices will actually agree that a defendant is entitled to be competence in a habeas hearing, but that dissenters -- most likely the originalist block -- will find that a competence determination is only required for trial and execution.

What do you think?

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