An Arizona jury convicted Ernest Valencia Gonzales of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death in 1991. After exhausting his state court options, Gonzales initiated federal habeas proceedings in 1999. Over the next few years, Gonzales began to display signs of delusion and paranoia, refusing a number of attempted visits from his attorney. The district court denied his attorney’s motion to stay the habeas proceedings pending a competency determination. The Ninth Circuit eventually granted mandamus relief, holding that the capital inmate’s right to counsel in federal habeas proceedings under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) implicitly includes a right to be competent to assist one’s counsel. Charles L. Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, appeals the Ninth Circuit’s decision arguing that the circuit court misread 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) to include a “right to competency” in assisting counsel. Ryan asserts that such a right would allow for indefinite stays of habeas proceedings based on incompetency that contravene Congress’ intent in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Gonzales contends that district courts have discretion to issue stays, and that such stays are appropriate where incompetency would deprive the capital inmate of “meaningful” right to counsel. This decision implicates federalism concerns over the finality of state court decisions in capital cases and the proper balance between the rights of victims and the rights of inmates.
Several years after Gonzales's counsel initiated federal habeas proceedings and filed an exhaustive petition seeking relief, counsel asserted that Gonzales was incompetent to communicate rationally and the proceedings should be indefinitely stayed pending possible restoration of competency. Based on 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), the Ninth Circuit agreed, even though Gonzales's claims were record-based or purely legal.
Did the Ninth Circuit err when it held that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2)—which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief "shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys"—impliedly entitles a death-row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel?