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A fool for a lawyer

Can you be denied certain rights, such as defending yourself in court? Justice Scalia isn't so sure.

June 28, 2008

Does the 6th Amendment guarantee your right to hire a fool for a lawyer? It does not, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Indiana vs. Edwards, finding that a defendant does not have an absolute right to act as his own counsel at trial. The case concerned a man, later diagnosed with schizophrenia, who shot and wounded a bystander while stealing a pair of shoes from a department store. After being found competent to stand trial, Ahmad Edwards attempted to dismiss his attorney and represent himself. His trial judge denied that request (Edwards was eventually convicted even with professional counsel), and by a vote of 7 to 2, the high court upheld that decision.

The remarkable thing about Indiana vs. Edwards is not Justice John Paul Stevens' majority decision, which seems to be a reasonable effort to provide a fair trial and avoid a courtroom farce. (Among other things, Edwards submitted a brief assuring the court that "my knowledged events as not unexpended to contract the membered clients is the commission of finding a facilitie.") Noting that mental illness is "not a unitary concept" and that Edwards' condition falls in a "gray area" between competence to stand trial and competence to act as a lawyer, the decision is narrowly tailored to avoid establishing strict new standards for either.

But Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent contains a challenge that is hard to dismiss. Do your rights proceed from a utilitarian concern for desired outcomes (in this case, a fair trial) or from an essential dignity grounded in free will? In Scalia's view, Edwards had a right to try his luck in court, even at the risk of a courtroom travesty or a woefully incompetent legal defense. ("I do not doubt that he likely would have been convicted anyway," the justice dryly observed.) By its nature, that right includes the possibility of doing the wrong thing, and a right does not diminish as the probability of a bad result increases.

To followers of the "natural law" tradition, and possibly to Americans from an older, less childproofed era, this line of thinking is commonplace. Yet in its way it's a radical affirmation, and a theme Scalia has been hitting in recent decisions. "It is not the role of courts," he wrote in his Giles vs. California decision, "to extrapolate from the words of the 6th Amendment to the values behind it, and then to enforce its guarantees only to the extent they serve (in the courts' views) those underlying values."

There, Scalia was dealing with admissibility of evidence in the Los Angeles murder trial of Dwayne Giles, but the premise is the same: Your rights are rooted in your dignity as an individual, not the beneficence of any court, government or psychiatrist. We can disagree with the arguments but value the reminder of this principle as the high court begins its recess.

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