But attorneys for states and the federal government argued at SCOTUS this week in Indiana v. Edwards that in such cases, courts should create a second standard that says a person is "competent" to stand trial but that only appointed representation can speak for them. (Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog has a writeup of the oral arguments, and the briefs are available here.)
I don't see how any right thinking person can look at the arguments and not think many people are being approved for trial who are not really "competent" in a meaningful sense. Indiana's solicitor general told the court that self-representation can be denied, before trial, “where the defendant cannot communicate coherently.” But the discussion went on to suggest a possible higher standard for situations when a person, after being declared competent, "put on 'gibberish'” as a defense.
Someone please explain what's the difference between "cannot communicate coherently" and "gibberish"? That's splitting the hair mighty thin, if you ask me. There's little question that many people suffering from serious mental illnesses are routinely approved for trial. Our prisons are full of them. According to USA Today ("High court to consider self representation," March 22):
Perhaps the fact that someone can only contribute "gibberish" to their own defense is evidence that they shouldn't have been declared "competent" in the first place.
Since a 1993 Supreme Court ruling addressed the issue of the competency standards for waiving the right to counsel and pleading guilty, at least 60 legally competent but mentally impaired defendants have tried to represent themselves, according to the state.
In 1995, a Texas man defending himself on capital murder charges tried to subpoena Jesus, wore a cowboy outfit to court, and assumed an alternative personality when testifying.