WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court seemed inclined Tuesday to eliminate the authority of federal judges to indefinitely delay a death row inmate's federal appeals in the hope that the convict would become mentally competent enough to help his or her lawyer with the appeals.
Inmates appealing state death sentences to federal court have a right to a lawyer. But the courts have never said whether the inmates have to be mentally competent enough to help their lawyers with their federal appeals.
Lawyers for Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales and Ohio death row inmate Sean Carter say the answer is yes, and urged the high court Tuesday to rule that federal judges have discretion to hold up proceedings until the inmates are ready. "The court's answers should reflect the important principle that no individual should lose potentially meritorious claims because of mental illness," said lawyer Scott Michelman, who represented Carter.
But justices spent considerable time talking about the differences in a proposed delay of six or nine months, or much as a year before ordering that the trial move forward.
"We would say presumptively a year. And we think there is support for that," Ohio Solicitor General Alexandria T. Schimmer said.
"Are you okay with the six months to a year stay for a court to try to get someone back to competence, assuming that there is a claim in which the defendant's information is necessary?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor later asked Arizona Attorney General Thomas C. Horne.
"Yes, your honor," he said.
Lawyers on both sides cited a court filing by the American Psychiatric Association which said that up to 90 percent of competency cases are resolved in six to nine months.
Gonzales' lawyer, Leticia Marquez, said they would prefer to leave it up to the judge. "We suggest that this is all within the district court's discretion," she said.
"So if we're looking for a little more guidance than that, and feel the need for an objective standard other than abuse of discretion, you don't have any number that has any basis in psychiatric evidence, or anything else, besides the nine months?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts.
"My answer is, we can look at a year. And possibly, if the client is not competent at the end of that year, then explore other options such as next friend or perhaps proceeding," she said.
Carter murdered his grandmother after being released from jail in 1997 and was sentenced to death. Gonzales murdered a man during a burglary in 1990 in Arizona, and was sentenced to death. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Gonzales' federal appeal could be delayed pending a competency determination after a lower court denied his request for a stay and a competency hearing.
In Carter's case, a federal judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent, and dismissed his appeal until he was ruled competent to stand trial. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the parts of Carter's appeal that did not require his help could move forward, but the rest could not.
While most inmates wouldn't need an indefinite stay, his client does, Michelman said.
"In most situations, the competency issue will resolve in a short period of time," he said. "This court shouldn't fear that it's opening the floodgates to long stays in many, many cases. This is a rare case with a very severely ill man with potentially meritorious claims that require his assistance."
Justice Samuel Alito seemed skeptical, because Carter is arguing that he wasn't competent during his state trial. "You have to be competent during the habeas (appellate) proceeding in order to assist in proving that he was incompetent at the time of trial?" he asked.
"Yes, Justice Alito," Michelman said.
Ann O'Connell, who represented the federal government, said the Justice Department had no problems with limited, justified stays. "If there is an opportunity for this prisoner to present new claims or new evidence," she said, "we don't think it's an abuse of discretion for the district court to allow him that opportunity."
"But you cap it by saying as long as the discretion is not exercised for more than a year," Sotomayor said.
"That's right," O'Connell replied. "We think it has to be just a limited stay. The United States would be opposed in any circumstances to a stay that's conditioned only on the prisoner's ability to regain his competence. At some point if he can't, we move forward."
Justice Stephen Breyer questioned why the court would want to limit the delay available to judges in mental competency cases, when they don't limit delays in other cases. "Why are we suddenly here, in this case, imposing a fixed number of days?" Breyer said.
"If a different piece of evidence or a different witness were unavailable, we wouldn't allow the district court to hold up the proceedings indefinitely to wait for that witness. And so it should be no different," O'Connell replied.
The justices are expected to rule sometime next year.
The cases are Tibbals v. Carter, 11-218 and Ryan v. Gonzales, 10-930.