Friday, June 20, 2008

Constitution: Self-Representation not Absolute

Mentally ill criminal defendants don't have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, the Supreme Court said Thursday in carving out an exception to the right to represent yourself.

The justices said that a mentally ill defendant can be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as his own lawyer. The 7-2 decision said states can give a trial judge discretion to force someone to accept an attorney to represent him if the judge is concerned that the trial could turn into a farce.

"The Constitution permits states to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial ... but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

The court has previously declared that self-representation is a constitutional right, although it is not absolute.

The ruling was one of five issued Thursday as the court nears the start of a three-month summer break. The justices released decisions in two age discrimination cases, finding in one that Kentucky's retirement system properly takes age into account for employees who have become disabled and requiring in the other that employers demonstrate why decisions that affect mostly older workers have a reasonable basis other than age.

The court also ruled for an employee in her benefits dispute with an insurance company and struck down a California law that blocked employers' use of state money for anti-union activities.
Ten cases remain unresolved, including the landmark consideration of Americans' gun rights, whether Exxon Mobil Corp. (nyse: XOM - news - people ) must pay punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty on people convicted of raping children.

Read it all here.

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