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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a question that has plagued trial courts across the country. If a person is sane enough to stand trial, does that mean he is mentally competent to represent himself?

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: After five years and multiple findings of mental incompetency, Ahmad Edwards was finally judged to be competent to stand trial on attempted murder charges in Indiana. But he wanted to represent himself. The trial judge ruled that Edwards was still too disturbed and incoherent to act as his own lawyer. The state Supreme Court said Edwards had been denied his constitutional right to represent himself, and the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case today.

On the steps of the court, lawyer Mark Stancil, representing Edwards, said the Constitution protects the defendant's rights at trial, not the state's rights.

Mr. MARK STANCIL (Ahmad Edwards' Lawyer): It's his decision - not the lawyers, not anybody else's - whether to plead guilty or whether to waive a jury trial right or whether to act as his own lawyer.

TOTENBERG: But Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher said the state has an interest in the public perception of a fair process.

Mr. TOM FISHER (Solicitor General, Indiana): The state has an interest in not conducting trials where it appears to be pursuing convictions against the defenseless.

TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom, Fisher was up first, telling the justices that the state has an interest in preventing a trial from descending into a farce.

Justice Scalia: If the trial does start to descend into a farce, then you can jump in and stop his self-representation. Answer: The state shouldn't have to wait and risk the jury being tainted.

Justice Alito: If the state's interest is a fair trial, wouldn't there be many cases of a person denied the right to represent himself? Answer: These cases are rare. There's a difference between someone who's unknowledgeable about the law and makes bad choices, and someone who's unable to communicate coherently.

Indiana's case was supported in court today by the Bush administration. Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Michael Dreeben said if the public sees a mentally ill defendant communicating with the jury in a delusional way, the public will lose faith in the integrity and fairness of the system. As an example, he pointed to the case of Colin Ferguson, charged in the Long Island railroad massacre, who calmly told the jury in his opening statement that he was being charged with 93 counts because it was 1993, and that if were 1928, he would have been charged with 28 counts.

Finally today, it was Mark Stancil's turn to argue for the defendant. Once the state has judged the defendant mentally competent, he said, the state cannot second-guess the defendant's choice to represents himself any more than it could tell him he could not testify for himself because he had unsightly tattoos.

Chief Justice Roberts: Do you argue that the state has no interest in ensuring a credible process?

Justice Alito: Do you disagree with the American Psychiatric Association that there are various forms of competency - one for standing trial and another to represent oneself?

Justice Breyer pointed to a psychiatric study showing a small subclass of people who are mentally competent to stand trial, but too delusional to communicate with a jury.

Justice Scalia, annoyed: Are there any psychiatric studies that show how accurate psychiatric studies are?

Lawyer Stancil went on to argue that if a defendant doesn't obey the judge and follow the rules of the courtroom, the judge can step in and appoint a lawyer.

Justice Kennedy: You presume that if a defendant is told to stop, he'll do it. That doesn't happen. It's two ships passing in the night or more likely five or six ships.

Justice Ginsburg, following up, read aloud from defendant Edwards' communications to the judge, which she called gibberish. Answer: We don't know if he was taking his medication when he wrote that.

Justice Scalia: But it's your position that as long as he's not disruptive, he can represent himself. It's his choice. Answer: Yes.

Justice Souter: So if he's merely incoherent, he cannot be replaced by appointed counsel. Answer: It has to be so disorderly and so disruptive that the trial cannot go forward.

Justice Kennedy: Based on your present assessment, was he competent to stand trial? Answer: It comes and goes. At the time of the trial, he was. He understood, for example, that the term voir dire refers to jury selection.

Justice Kennedy, exasperated: There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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