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Court Limits Mentally Ill Defendants

The Supreme Court made a 7-2 ruling today denying a defendant’s right to represent him or herself in court if they suffer from mental illness at a judge’s sole discretion. This is despite the fact that the defendant may have already been found competent to stand trial.

The reason for this limit on the right to represent oneself (guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution)?

Concern that a trial could turn into a farce! As though lawyers don’t already do that regularly in courtrooms across the nation (anyone remember the O.J. trial, for instance?).

Here’s the background of the case:

Ahmad Edwards was initially found to be schizophrenic and suffering from delusions and spent most of the five years after the shooting in state psychiatric facilities. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial.

Edwards asked to represent himself. A judge denied the request because he was concerned that Edwards’ trial would not be fair. Edwards, represented by a lawyer, was convicted anyway and sentenced to 30 years in prison. […]

“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.

Honestly, though, since it’s up to the judge’s opinion, this just opens the door for potential abuse. Any defendant who has ever had a mental health diagnosis — depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, even an adjustment disorder! — could be covered by this new ruling. And while most of us will never have to deal with a day in court, much less the decision to represent ourselves in court, it is a chilling reminder that people who have mental disorders are still viewed as second-class citizens by much of the nation — even Supreme Court justices who should know better.

If you’re competent enough to stand trial, you should be competent enough to represent yourself if you so choose. While almost always a bad decision (unless you’ve studied law extensively), it is still a choice guaranteed by our Constitution. Limiting that choice to certain citizens that you’ve already decided were competent seems hypocritical and contradictory.

We’re saddened to read of this decision and hope it doesn’t result in additional abuses to the freedoms guaranteed people with mental health concerns.

Read the full article: Court puts limits on mentally ill defendants

Court Limits Mentally Ill Defendants

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Court Limits Mentally Ill Defendants. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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