Essentially SCOTUS said that just because someone is "competent" to stand trial doesn't mean they're competent to exercise their other rights as a free person under the US Constitution. In other words, it's possible to be competent enough to have your liberty curtailed, but simultaneously incompetent to be the person who explains why that shouldn't happen.
According to the New York Times, Justice Stephen Breyer's decision emphasized the "spectacle" of letting mentally ill people pontificate on their own behalf in open court:
Noting that the court has referred to the right to self-representation as an aspect of individual dignity, Justice Breyer said dignity was lacking in the “spectacle that could well result” from a mentally ill defendant’s efforts, which he said were “at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling.”Well, Justice Breyer - what about the "spectacle" of filling up our prisons with mentally ill people so deranged that merely allowing them to articulate their own defense to charges against them is too "humiliating" for the courts to bear?
Is it any less a spectacle if we just lock up mentally ill people in prison en masse without the trial judge having to listen to them personally? Why aren't you humilated by the fact that we've all but criminalized mental illness among the indigent and treat medical conditions with prison time?
In Texas, three of ten inmates in state prisons are prior clients of the state's indigent mental health system, and defendants declared incompetent routinely sit in jail for weeks or months waiting for state hospital beds to open up to do "competency restoration." I consider that unhappy circumstance a more egregious "spectacle" than the efforts (even pitiful ones) by a mentally challenged person to defend themselves in court.
Justice Scalia's retort to Breyer was more philosophical, declaring that the dignity at stake is not whether a defendant makes "a fool of himself by presenting an amateurish or even incoherent defense. Rather, the dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being a master of one's fate rather than a ward of the state -- the dignity of individual choice." There is a difference, in other words, between "dignity" and "decorum."
This was an activist decision by judges for judges to make their jobs and lives easier, leaving for some other day any latent concern for either the rights of mentally ill people or the righteousness and public policy consequences of using the criminal justice system as de facto asylums. To that extent, as Justice Alito said in his dissent, “the court’s opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct.” Again from the Times:
Finally, this is another instance where the court declined to decide the case in a way that's meaningful for practitioners, ensuring, as the Times put it, there will be "sequels." Again from Scalia:
The decision, Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208, drew a vigorous dissenting opinion from Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Scalia said the treatment Mr. Edwards received in being denied to present the defense of his choice “seems to me the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness.”
The only reason the court has previously accepted as valid for denying self-representation, Justice Scalia said, was a threat to the orderliness of the trial. But Mr. Edwards was “respectful and compliant” and did not even have the chance to try representing himself ...
Justice Scalia said that “trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier” by appointing lawyers rather than giving mentally ill defendants a chance to proceed on their own.
Today’s holding is extraordinarily vague. The Court does not accept Indiana’s position that self-representation can be denied ‘where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.'…It does not even hold that Edwards was properly denied his right to represent himself. It holds only that lack of mental competence can under some circumstances form a basis for denying the right to proceed pro se…We will probably give some meaning to this holding in the future, but the indeterminancy makes a bad holding worse.So SCOTUS has said the standard for competency is NOT the standard for self representation, but declined to articulate a new standard for how to determine when someone can't self-represent. That's decidedly unhelpful - or rather, it's helpful only to trial judges annoyed by pro se defendants who now can choose any reason they like to deny mentally ill defendants' self representation.
Via Prevention Not Punishment. See prior Grits coverage and also commentary from Simple Justice and SCOTUSBlog.