The decision establishes for the first time a two-tier system of determining competency for criminal defendants. Even if a defendant is found mentally competent enough to stand trial, that finding doesn't automatically entitle the defendant to exercise what had been a Sixth Amendment right to serve as his own lawyer.
Under prior rules, the defendant would have to be deemed disruptive in open court to lose the right to self-representation. Thursday's opinion includes no such requirement.
Justice Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment, the Court's opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct," Justice Scalia writes.
"At a time when all society is trying to mainstream the mentally impaired, the Court permits them to be deprived of a basic constitutional right – for their own good," he says.
At issue in the case, Indiana v. Edwards, was whether the Supreme Court should adopt a new rule providing for a second level of competency to determine when certain individuals with mental or other disabilities are entitled to represent themselves at trial.
The difficulty arises in cases when a judge has determined a person is mentally competent to stand trial. That standard isn't particularly high. The defendant must be able to understand the charges and help the lawyer mount a defense to those charges.
Being found competent to stand trial does not mean the defendant isn't laboring under substantial mental or other disabilities. If represented by counsel, sometimes the extensive scope of those disabilities can be partly masked or completely hidden from the jury. But when a mentally disabled defendant decides to represent himself, the judge and jury are confronted with a practical problem. Can a mentally ill defendant who chooses to represent himself receive a fair trial?