June 27, 2008 4:19PM

For His Own Good

It’s not one of the big cases decided by the Supreme Court this term, but Indiana v. Edwards shows how these justices are all over the map — from a libertarian legal perspective. The issue was whether a person can choose to represent himself in court in a criminal case. This corner of the law was in pretty good shape — the rule that courts followed was this: If the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waives the right to counsel, he can proceed to defend himself (so long as he is orderly and follows the judge’s rules as all attorneys must do). Some liberals object and say he’ll just screw up and the trial will not be fair. The response has been that the trial judge should warn the defendant about such risks at the outset, but it’s his case, his liberty on the line, and thus his decision.

This term presented the case of a mentally ill defendant who wanted to represent himself. The trial judge denied his request. Some persons are found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial — even with an attorney’s help — but that was not the case here. The defendant was found to be competent to stand trial but, according to the trial judge, incompetent to represent himself. Counsel was appointed and he was subsequently convicted by a jury. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s handling of the case. Interestingly, Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion (which Justice Thomas joined). 


In my view the Constitution does not permit a State to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant’s right to make his own case before the jury–a specific right long understood as essential to a fair trial. … [T]he loss of ‘dignity’ the right is designed to prevent is not the defendant’s making a fool of himself by presenting an amateurish or even incoherent defense. Rather, the dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one’s fate rather than a ward of the State–the dignity of individual choice. …

The facts of this case illustrate this point with the utmost clarity. Edwards wished to take a self‐​defense case to the jury. His counsel preferred a defense that focused on lack of intent. Having been denied the right to conduct his own defense, Edwards was convicted without having had the opportunity to present to a jury the grounds he believed supported his innocence. I do not doubt that he likely would have been convicted anyway. But to hold that a defendant may be deprived of the right to make legal arguments for acquittal simply because a state‐​selected agent has made a different argument on his behalf is, as Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, to ‘imprison a man in his privileges and call it the Constitution.’ In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment, the Court’s opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct. 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.

Good stuff. 

The liberal votes here are probably driven by their pursuit of a ‘just’ outcome — no matter what the constitutional text says. Justice Kennedy recently joined the liberals in defense of habeas corpus and the conservatives in defense of the right to keep and bear arms. One might have expected him to follow the text here as well — but he joined the majority. Alas, he seems to pursue the ‘just’ outcome just like the liberals. That Alito and Roberts would part company with Scalia and Thomas in a case like this shows once again their more statist bent.

For the full opinion in this case, Indiana v. Edwards, go here (pdf).