Ryan v. Gonzales

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Ryan v. Gonzales.


Does an indigent death-row inmate’s right to counsel in habeas proceedings include a right that the inmate is competent to assist counsel where such a right may create an indefinite delay in executing the inmate’s sentence?

Oral argument: 
October 9, 2012

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.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

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?


Ernest Valencia Gonzales was charged with murder in 1990, and was tried in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona. His first trial resulted in a hung jury. See Gonzales v. Schriro 617 F.Supp.2d 849, 856 (D. Ari 2008). Upon retrial, the jury convicted Gonzales of murder. See id. Without an attorney’s assistance and before the sentencing phase, Gonzales moved unsuccessfully to disqualify the trial judge, arguing that the judge made adverse rulings and on-the-record comments. See Id. at 855-56. On direct appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, Gonzales’s appellate counsel claimed judicial bias but the appellate court nevertheless affirmed the conviction and sentence. See Id. Gonzales immediately and unsuccessfully filed petitions in state court for post-conviction relief. See id. at 861. The state court appointed an attorney to represent Gonzales, but Gonzales attempted to waive his right to counsel and to represent himself. See Id. The court denied this request to waive counsel, pursuant to a court-ordered mental examination that indicated Gonzales was incompetent. See id. Gonzales’s attorney then moved for a stay of proceedings in state court until Gonzales became competent to assist counsel. See id. at 862. The court denied the motion, holding that Gonzales did not have a right to a competency determination. See id.

In addition to pursuing post-conviction remedies in Arizona state courts, Gonzales petitioned the United States District Court for the District of Arizona for a writ of habeas corpus. See In re Gonzales 623 F.3d 1242, 1244 (9th Cir. 2010). After filing his petition, Gonzales began to suffer symptoms of declining mental health; he reportedly became paranoid, delusional, and distrustful of his appointed counsel. See Id.; Brief for Respondent, Ernest Valencia Gonzales at 5. Prior to the hearing regarding the habeas petition, Gonzales’s attorney filed a motion to stay proceedings pending a determination of Gonzales’s mental competency to assist counsel. See Brief for Respondent at 7. In the motion, Gonzales’s attorney cited multiple failed attempts to communicate with his client. See Brief for Respondent at 7;Brief for Petitioner, Charles L. Ryan, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections at5.

In preparation for the competency determination, the parties submitted conflicting expert reports assessing Gonzales’s mental health. To obtain a more neutral assessment, the court transferred Gonzales to a mental hospital and ordered the hospital to conduct an extended evaluation. See In re Gonzales, 623 F.3d at 1244. The hospital’s report expressed concerns that Gonzales might have been exaggerating his symptoms, but it ultimately concluded that Gonzales suffered from a “genuine psychotic disorder." See Id. Nevertheless, the District Court ruled that whether Gonzales was competent to assist counsel did not matter because his habeas claims are resolvable based on the record of the prior court proceedings. See Id. at 1245. The court held that Gonzales could not have any private knowledge of additional facts that would be relevant to his claims. See Id.

Gonzales’s attorney filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to order a stay of the district court proceedings pending a competency determination. See In re Gonzales, 623 F.3d at 1245. The Ninth Circuit issued the stay, holding that Gonzales's competency to assist counsel was material to the habeas petition and that a court competency determination is necessary. See Id. at 1245-47. Charles L. Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. See Brief for Petitioner at 1. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari. See Ryan v. Gonzales, 132 S.Ct. 1738 (2012).


Indigent death-row inmates have the right to attorney representation in federal habeas corpus actions. See 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2). The Ninth Circuit decision under review in this case held that Section 3599(a)(2) also provides habeas corpus petitioners a right to be competent to assist their appointed counsel if the petitioner raises claims that could benefit from “rational communication” between attorney and client. See Gonzales v. United States Dist. Ct. for Dist. of Ariz. 623 F.3d 1242, 1244. Ryan argues for a plain-meaning interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), and asserts that the statute does not provide for a right to competency in habeas proceedings. Further, Ryan contends that even if courts may stay habeas proceedings in some cases based on incompetency, courts should not grant stays in cases such as this one where the petitioner’s claims are record-based. Gonzales advocates a purposive reading of 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) that takes an expansive view of a habeas petitioner’s right to counsel. Gonzales asserts that judges should stay proceedings when “essential communication” between attorney and client is impossible. Further, Gonzales contends that the Court should preserve judges’ discretion to protect a habeas petitioner’s right to meaningful counsel.

A Right to Competency to Assist Counsel in Habeas Proceedings

Ryan argues that the plain language of 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) does not reference a right to be competent to assist counsel in habeas proceedings. See Brief for Petitioner, Charles L. Ryan, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections at 9-10. Ryan rejects that inmates have an implied right stemming from the common law traditions of the right to counsel and the right to competency. See Id. First, Ryan argues that the statute’s language unambiguously does not provide a right to be competent to assist counsel, and courts must not “interpret” or “improve” upon unambiguous statutes. See Id. Second, Ryan asserts that the Ninth Circuit’s reliance upon cases implying a right to counsel in criminal trials is misplaced. See Id. at 12. Ryan argues that courts have a stronger interest in protecting a defendant’s right to meaningful assistance from counsel in a criminal trial, but do not have that same interest in a civil habeas corpus proceeding. See Id. A habeas action is an attack on a state court conviction and sentence, which have been affirmed on appeal and are presumed to be final and fair. See id.

Gonzales responds that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), read together with the Supreme Court’s decision in MacFarland v. Scott, provides more content to a habeas petitioner’s right to counsel than just appointment of counsel. See Brief for Respondent, Ernest Valencia Gonzales at 15-16. Gonzales argues that under MacFarland, if an inmate’s court-appointed counsel does not have the opportunity to successfully “research or present” the inmate’s habeas claims, the right to counsel is not satisfied. See Id. at 16. Gonzales asserts that an inmate who is incompetent to assist court-appointed counsel likely denies the counsel an opportunity to carry out the habeas action successfully. See Id. Accordingly, if an inmate is incompetent to assist counsel during a habeas proceeding, the inmate’s right to counsel has not been satisfied. See Id.Gonzales adds that, under 28 U.S.C. § 2251(a)(1), courts have broad discretion to stay court proceedings in order to protect a defendant’s right to meaningful representation. See Id. at 13.

Ryan counters that theAntiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) limits the discretion courts have to grant stays in habeas proceedings. See Brief for Petitioner at 18. Ryan argues that theAEDPA’s purpose is to promote finality in decisions and to promote efficiency in carrying out executions. See Id. Accordingly, Ryan contends that allowing a death-row inmate to initiate a federal habeas action to attack a state court conviction and then delay those proceedings indefinitely runs counter to the expressed congressional intent in theAEDPA. SeeReply Brief for Petitioner, Charles L. Ryan, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections at 21.

Gonzales disagrees, arguing that the purpose of theAEDPA does not require courts to promote efficiency at all costs. Gonzales asserts that courts must still consider other factors, along with seeking to promote finality and to reduce delays. SeeBrief for Respondent at 18. Gonzales argues that courts must also consider the federal system’s goal in providing a “full and fair” habeas corpus proceeding. See id. Gonzales contends that federal habeas corpus proceedings play an important role in ensuring that the death penalty is fairly applied. See Id. at 19. Further, Gonzales argues that Congress expressly reaffirmed district court judges’ right to stay habeas proceedings after they passed theAEDPA. See Id.

Judicial Discretion to Stay Habeas Proceedings

Gonzales proposes an “essential communication” standard to determine when a judge may grant a stay of habeas corpus proceedings. Under this standard, Gonzales would have the court first inquire as to whether the inmate can communicate with counsel, and if so, whether communication is essential to the success of the habeas corpus claims. See Brief for Respondent at 20.

Ryan argues that in a record-based claim, the input of a habeas petitioner will not affect the legal quality of the arguments made by the inmate’s appointed counsel. See Brief for Petitioner at 11. Therefore, Ryan concludes that client input in such situations cannot affect the outcome of the case. See Id. Ryan concedes that in certain situations, a client would be able to add value to the attorney’s work product. However, Ryan contends that in cases such as the instant one where the record is so “fully-developed,” there should be no right to competency because a client’s personal experiences are of no practical significance to their appointed counsel. See Id.

Gonzales argues that communication can be crucial to the success of many different cases based on their individual facts, and therefore concludes that courts cannot categorically excluded certain types of cases from the realm of discretion given to the district court judge. See Brief for Respondent at 23. Gonzales asserts that in all cases attorneys benefit from client input in assessing claims and crafting arguments. See Id. at 16. A group of retired federal judges agrees with this point, contending that courts should not place artificial limits on judicial discretion in this matter because fair consideration of the issues by a judge is preferable to a fixed exclusion of particular cases. See Brief of Amici Curiae Retired Federal Judges in Support of Respondent at 3-6. Gonzales further asserts that in habeas corpus actions, attorney-client communication is essential, because if a habeas petitioner were unable to communicate with appointed counsel, it would be extremely difficult for appointed counsel to provide meaningful representation. See Brief for Respondent at 16.

Ryan contends that communication between counsel and inmate in a federal habeas corpus action is never “essential” as demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s “next friend” jurisprudence. See Brief for Petitioner at 16. This line of cases indicates that a “next friend” can step in to act on the inmate’s behalf in the instance of their incompetency and carry out a habeas corpus action. See Id.

Gonzales counters that in many of the cases cited in support of Arizona’s argument on this point the inmate is “incompetent” for reasons other than inability to communicate, such as an inmate’s status as a minor. See Brief for Respondent at 30. Further, Gonzales argues that appointing a “next friend” is but another tool made available to judges to preserve fairness of proceedings, and does not preclude judges from issuing stays if the judge determines that to be the best course of action. See Id.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could disrupt the finality of state court judgments in capital cases or circumscribe the rights of death-row inmates seeking federal habeas corpus relief. Ryan asserts that a central purpose of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) is to promote finality and reduce delay in capital cases on habeas review. Ryan contends that a right to competence would create federalism concerns and negatively impact victim’s rights because incompetent inmates could indefinitely suspend both the habeas proceedings and the execution of their death sentences. Gonzales counters that the federal district courts’ broad discretion to suspend habeas proceedings in the interests of justice balances the federalism concerns under the AEDPA. Moreover, Gonzales contends that not recognizing a right to competence here would have a greater detrimental impact on inmate’s rights.

Federalism Concerns

Ryan argues that death-row inmates pursuing federal habeas relief could use stays based on incompetency to extend their incarceration and avoid their state-ordered execution. See Brief for Petitioner, Charles L. Ryan, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections at 19. Ryan points out that one of the central purposes of the AEDPA is to mandate greater deference to state court decisions. See Id. at 9. Similarly, Utah and supporting states assert that allowing potentially indefinite stays would infringe on the states’ interests in punishing their worst criminal offenders and maintaining the finality of their judgments, which receive a presumption of validity. See Brief of Amici Curiae Utah et al. in Support of Petitioner at 4. The United States concurs that a deference to state court judgments helps to “preserve the federal balance” by recognizing states’ good-faith efforts to honor a defendant’s due process rights and by respecting states’ sovereignty in sentencing. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the United States in Support of Petitioners at 26–27.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) notes that the AEDPA’s favored treatment of state court judgments does not preclude finding that the judgment is unreasonable. See Brief of Amici Curiae the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) and the National Association of Federal Defenders in Support of Respondents at 17. Gonzales points out that federal habeas review plays a significant role in ensuring “fundamental fairness” in the application of the death penalty. See Brief for Respondent, Ernest Valencia Gonzales at 18. The American Psychiatric Association (“APA”) argues that when a capital inmate’s inability to assist counsel impedes thorough review of his claims, proceeding with the habeas case compromises the integrity of the criminal justice system and the capital review process in particular. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Psychiatric Association (“APA”) and American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in Support of Respondents at 10–11. Gonzales adds that fully protecting a capital inmate’s rights is more necessary than ever because the AEDPA now renders an inmate’s first habeas petition his only opportunity for relief in federal court. See Brief for Respondent at 11.

Protecting Victims’ Rights

Arizona Voice for Crime Victims asserts that disrupting the finality of a judgment against a capital inmate delays emotional resolution for victims and their families, which can result in a second victimization even more harmful than the first. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Arizona Voice for Crime Victims in Support of Petitioners at 7, 10. Ryan also recognizes that a victim has an independent right against unreasonable delay in a federal habeas proceeding under 18 U.S.C. 3771(b). See Brief for Petitioner at 19.

Gonzales, however, asserts that courts must balance the interest in finality with the interest in a full and fair federal habeas proceeding. See Brief for Respondent at 18–19. Gonzales also insists that such delays are rare, and seldom indefinite, as courts can order treatment plans to help capital inmates return to competence. See id. at 32.

Protecting Capital Inmates’ Rights

The American Bar Association (“ABA”) argues that for the right to counsel to be meaningful, a capital inmate must have a right to “knowing, rational communication and decision-making” as part of the attorney-client relationship. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the American Bar Association (“ABA”) in Support of Respondents at 8. The ACLU asserts that an incompetent inmate cannot participate meaningfully in his habeas proceeding. See Brief of ACLU at 28. According to the ACLU, an incompetent capital inmate can neither protect his own interests against ineffective assistance of counsel, nor assist counsel in making the factual determinations or strategic decisions necessary for effective prosecution of his claim. See id. at 5.

However, Ryan and the United States argue that courts have long recognized that a “next friend,” or legal guardian, may pursue a habeas petition on behalf of a mentally incompetent capital inmate. See Brief of the United States at 12. Thus, a habeas proceeding may move forward even where a court deems the capital inmate incompetent. See Brief for Petitioner at 16.


In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether capital inmates have a right to competency to assist counsel, such that a finding of incompetency can indefinitely stay their federal habeas proceedings and the execution of their death sentences. Charles L. Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, argues that any plain reading of 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) does not include any right for an inmate to competently assist their assigned counsel. Moreover, Ryan claims that even if such did exist, the right would not be available in cases such as Gonzales’s case where the inmate bases their habeas claims solely on the state courts records.

Further, Ryan contends that that allowing for indefinite stays of habeas proceedings based on incompetency contravenes both states’ interests in the finality of their judgments and Congress’ intent in enacting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Ernest Valencia Gonzales argues that courts should look to the purpose of the “right to counsel” provision in 18 U.S.C. § 3599 to find that the competent assistance of the client is required to effectively protect the right to counsel. Gonzales asks for an “essential communication” standard to protect any “meaningful” right to counsel in cases where incompetency would prevent a client from communicating essential information to the client’s attorney. Gonzales contends that such a standard would enable district courts to retain discretion in issuing stays in the interests of justice. The Supreme Court’s decision here will likely affect the balance of interest in habeas proceedings between the state interest in finality and the federal interest in protecting defendant’s constitutional rights. Additionally, the decision will likely affect the same balance between the rights of victims and the rights of inmates in capital cases.