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Supreme Court limits right to self-counsel for mentally ill

5 rulings issued as vacation looms

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Sherman
Associated Press / June 20, 2008

WASHINGTON - Mentally ill criminal defendants don't have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, the Supreme Court said yesterday in carving out an exception to the right to represent yourself.

The justices said that a mentally ill defendant can be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as his own lawyer. The 7-2 decision said states can give a trial judge discretion to force someone to accept an attorney to represent him if the judge is concerned that the trial could turn into a farce.

"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.

The court has previously declared that self-representation is a constitutional right.

The ruling was one of five issued yesterday as the court nears the start of a three-month break. The justices released decisions in two age discrimination cases, finding in one that Kentucky's retirement system properly takes age into account for employees who have become disabled and requiring in the other that employers demonstrate why decisions that affect mostly older workers have a reasonable basis other than age.

The court also ruled that judges reviewing workers' claims for health or disability benefits should consider the financial incentive that employers and insurers have to deny payment.

A fractured court overturned a Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. decision that denied disability benefits to a onetime Sears Roebuck & Co. employee. Metropolitan Life is a unit of MetLife Inc., the largest US life insurer.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said a conflict of interest results when employers or insurers take on the dual role of evaluating claims and funding a plan's payments.

Ten cases remain unresolved, including the landmark consideration of Americans' gun rights, whether Exxon Mobil Corp. must pay punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, and the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty on people convicted of raping children.

The court meets again Monday.

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