High Court Taking up Issues of Mental Competence, Death Row Cases


The Supreme Court a quarter century ago said it was unconstitutional to execute an insane person, and it extended that ban to the mentally retarded in 2002. Lyle Denniston in Scotusblog says the court never has decided whether an individual has any right, under the Constitution or any federal law, to actually be competent in order to take part in a federal habeas review of his case or to have the case put off indefinitely. Yesterday, it agreed to rule on those issues, accepting cases from Arizona and Ohio.

That brings brings the court back to an exploration of the rights of individuals who have been sentenced to death in murder cases and then are found to be mentally incompetent. The court has not sorted out what other legal rights the mentally ill on death row have when, having failed in challenges in state court, they turn to federal courts to press their legal claims. Officials in 17 states joined in urging the Court to spell out what a federal court is to do in a habeas case when a death-row inmate is found to be incapable — because of a mental defect — of helping out his lawyers in pursuing a habeas challenge.

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