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Too Crazy for Habeas?

In a criminal trial, the State is the moving party, and it cannot proceed against the defendant if he is too far gone mentally to assist his attorney.  The Tucson shooter is the best-known example.

Habeas corpus is not a criminal trial.  The state has already won its judgment.  The prisoner is the moving party.  Can a prisoner file a habeas petition, get a stay of his punishment, and then suspend the proceedings indefinitely on the ground he is too crazy to assist his habeas attorney?  Of course he can't be executed while presently insane, but halting the habeas proceeding could mean he can't be executed until years after he regains his sanity.

This morning the Supreme Court decided to take up two cases on this issue, one from Arizona and one from Ohio, for argument and decision in the term beginning next October.  The orders list is here.  In Ryan v. Gonzales, No. 10-930, the Question Presented is: "Does 18 U.S.C. ยง 3599(a)(2) which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief 'shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys' entitle a death row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel?"  The correct answer is "of course not."  Entitlement to appointment and an indefinite stay are different issues, but this is a capital case from the Ninth Circuit, so regular readers of this blog will not have any difficulty guessing which way it went.

The other case is Tibbals v. Carter, No. 11-218, from the 6th Circuit (a.k.a. the 9th upside down).  The split panel decision is here.  Opinion by Judge Martin, joined by Judge Cole.  Judge Rogers dissents.


Even if we grant that, in a perfect world, someone too crazy to assist counsel should be granted a habeas stay, the practical effects (delay, costs etc.) mean that it should not happen, particularly given the fact that habeas is an intrusion into state processes. And, on top of that, not all federal judges deal with capital cases in good faith.

Plus there's no constitutional right to be competent for appeals generally.

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