Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Only limited stays for competency during habeas appeals

In Ryan v. Gonzales and Tibbals v. Carter the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have the equitable power to issue limited stays when inmates are incompetent to assist in their habeas proceedings, according to the ABA Journal.

But the unanimous opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas rejected arguments that prisoners have a statutory right to competency stays in habeas appeals that is derived from federal statutes. And Thomas said that, in most cases, an inmate’s mental incompetence during a habeas proceeding will not eviscerate his statutory right to counsel.

“Given the backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeashabeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence,” Thomas said. “Attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors, and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.”

Thomas ruled in the consolidated cases of Gonzales and Carter, both on death row. Gonzales was convicted in the stabbing death of an Arizona man during a burglary of his home, while Carter was convicted in the rape and stabbing death of his adoptive grandmother in Ohio. Thomas’ decision could benefit Carter when the courts consider his case on remand.

Thomas said there is no right to competency deriving a federal statute providing for the appointment of counsel for indigent capital defendants pursuing habeas appeals. Nor is there a right in a federal law providing for competency proceedings before trial, or after the beginning of probation or supervised release, he said.

Thomas did acknowledge, however, that federal judges had the equitable power to stay proceedings based on incompetence of a habeas petitioner, reported the ABA Journal 
To read the full opinion:

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