Mental Capacity for Self-representation

In Indiana v. Edwards (2008) 554 U.S. 164, the United States Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a defendant, mentally competent to stand trial if represented by counsel, could be found to lack the mental capacity to represent himself at trial. (Edwards, supra, 554 U.S. at p. 167.) There, the defendant underwent several psychiatric evaluations and competency hearings before the court found that he was competent to stand trial. (Id. at pp. 167-169.) The court, however, referred to the lengthy record of the psychiatric reports and the defendant's schizophrenia in finding that he was not competent to defend himself. (Id. at p. 169.) The United States Supreme Court concluded that the trial court was not required to permit a defendant to represent himself at trial if he evidenced mental illness, even though he had been found competent to stand trial. "The Constitution permits judges to take realistic account of the particular defendant's mental capacities by asking whether a defendant who seeks to conduct his own defense at trial is mentally competent to do so. That is to say, the Constitution permits States to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial under Dusky v. United States (1960) 362 U.S. 402 but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves." (Edwards, supra, 554 U.S. at pp. 177-178.) "Dusky defines the competency standard as including both (1) 'whether' the defendant has 'a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him' and (2) whether the defendant 'has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding." (Edwards, supra, 554 U.S. 164, 170; quoting Dusky, supra, 362 U.S. at p. 402.) The Edwards court reasoned that the ability to conduct one's own defense requires a higher degree of functionality than does the lesser role of a represented defendant. (Edwards, supra, 554 U.S. at pp. 173-175.) Thus, one may be mentally competent to stand trial yet lack the expanded degree of competence necessary to represent oneself in that trial. (Id. at pp. 176-178.) The Court distinguished Godinez v. Moran (1993) 509 U.S. 389, noting that there the defendant sought to proceed on his own to enter a guilty plea, rather than to conduct trial proceedings, thus the issue of the defendant's ability to conduct a defense at trial was not considered. (Id. at p. 173.) The Godinez court rejected "the notion that competence to plead guilty or to waive the right to counsel must be measured by a standard that is higher than (or even different from) the Dusky standard." (Id. at p. 398.)