On January 8, 2013, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales. These death penalty cases considered the scope of the right to counsel in federal habeas proceedings where the convicted individual’s mental competency is at issue--whether a federal court can put a state prisoner’s habeas claim on perpetual hold until mental competency is restored. The specific question in Tibbals v. Carter was whether a capital prisoner possesses a “right to competence” in federal habeas proceedings under the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Rees v. Peyton. The analogous question in Ryan v. Gonzales was whether a state inmate’s right to counsel in habeas proceedings (where the underlying offense was a capital offense) includes a right to a stay of habeas proceedings when the inmate is not competent to assist counsel.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Thomas, the Court held unanimously that there is no statutory “right to competence” in federal habeas proceedings; nor does a state prisoner have a right to suspension of federal habeas proceedings if he is judged mentally incompetent.
To discuss the case, we have Ronald Eisenberg, who is the Deputy District Attorney for the Law Division at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.