October 9, 2012
Sean Carter was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and rape, and was sentenced to death in Ohio. His counsel filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his conviction and requested a pre-petition competency hearing to determine whether Carter was competent to participate in the federal habeas proceeding. The district court granted both the petition and the request. Two years later, the district court determined that Carter was incompetent and dismissed his petition while also stopping the one-year statute of limitations. When the warden at the facility where Carter is imprisoned challenged the district court's decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that even though the district court was justified in finding Carter incompetent, the proper course of action was to stay, rather than dismiss, the habeas proceedings until Carter was competent. Another warden now argues that a district court does not have the authority to stay federal habeas proceedings, nor does Carter have a right to competence in his own habeas proceedings. How the Supreme Court decides this case will determine the balance between recognizing the finality of state-court criminal judgments and allowing federal courts to use their discretion to implement stays in federal habeas proceedings where a capital prisoner’s competence to assist counsel is questionable.
1. Do capital prisoners possess a "right to competence" in federal habeas proceedings under Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966)?
2. Can a federal district court order an indefinite stay of federal habeas proceeding under Rees?
Whether the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Rees v.