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Arguments on Habeas and Competency

The transcripts are available for the arguments in Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales, noted in this post yesterday.  The issue is when a federal habeas court can put the proceedings on hold while the prisoner is mentally incompetent.  In contrast to the Johnson v. Williams argument, noted in this post last week, in Tibbals it seemed like the lawyer for Ohio wanted to bunt while the justices wanted her to swing for the fences.

Carter's lawyer wanted open-ended discretion for the district judge, but Justice Alito noted the basic problem that AEDPA was intended to address:

Do you think that is consistent with AEDPA; that Congress, knowing, in particular, that a lot of district judges and a lot of court of appeals judges don't like the death penalty and will go to some length to prevent the imposition of that sentence, that we're just going to leave that all to the discretion of every individual district judge?
Bullseye.  Judges have generally been vested with a lot of discretion, but many of them have abused it to delay or prevent altogether the enforcement of a law they disagree with.  When discretion is abused, it needs to be curtailed.

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, although he's not happy about it, suggests that the "Justices reaching for some limits," likely a majority, are coming to a set of rules like this:

if there is a claim of incompetency, there should never be an indefinite stay of the proceedings to see if the inmate might regain competence; there should never be a stay when the issues before the judge are based solely on the already-made record in state court; and, in any case in which there might be new evidence that the inmate could supply if competent, the stay should be somewhere between six and nine months, and not ever more than a year.

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