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.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Rees v. Peyton, in which a district court determined the mental competence of a death row prisoner in a habeas proceeding, guarantees that a prisoner sentenced to death has a right to be competent in federal habeas proceedings, and whether Rees authorizes a district court to stay a federal habeas proceeding for an undetermined, possibly infinite period of time.
Sean Carter was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and rape and sentenced to death in Ohio. When Carter refused to discuss a possible appeal, Carter’s counsel worried that he was both incompetent and foregoing further appeals. Carter's counsel filed a federal habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio and a motion for a pre-petition competency hearing in an attempt to stay proceedings pending a competency determination.
The district court granted Carter's motion and held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Carter was competent to proceed with his habeas litigation. Experts for Carter and his opponent, the State of Ohio, agreed that Carter suffered from schizophrenia, personality disorder, and hallucinations and that he could not fully and articulately communicate with his counsel. The experts disagreed, however, with respect to how well Carter could assist his counsel. One of Carter's experts, Dr. Robert Stinson, asserted that Carter lacked a factual understanding of the proceedings. Carter's other expert testified that Carter could not learn or retain new information, nor could he recall significant historical information. In contrast, the State's expert reported that Carter could communicate with his counsel but not elaborate upon basic information. In June 2008, Dr. Stinson updated the court, reporting that Carter demonstrated a declining mental condition and significant psychosis and functional limitations.
The district court determined that Carter was too incompetent to proceed with his federal habeas litigation and dismissed the petition without prejudice while tolling the one-year statute of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) until a time when Carter was competent to proceed.
Warden Margaret Bradshaw appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit held that although the district court did not abuse its discretion when it conducted a competency hearing, nor when it found reasonable cause to believe that Carter was incompetent, the court should not have dismissed the petition or tolled the statute of limitations. Instead of dismissing the petition, which entirely removed it from the court’s docket, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court should have issued a stay and kept Carter’s habeas petition as a pending matter. In determining that Carter had a right to competency, the Sixth Circuit referenced Rees v. Peyton, in which the Supreme Court directed a lower court to determine the competency of a capital prisoner after the prisoner instructed counsel to withdraw his habeas petition. The Sixth Circuit interpreted Rees as an application of 18 U.S.C. § 4241 to habeas actions, which gives a criminal defendant the right to a competence hearing if there is reason to believe he does not understand the “proceedings against him” or cannot assist his counsel because of incompetence.
On March 19, 2012, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case brought by another warden, Terry Tibbals, to determine whether, under Rees, a capital prisoner such as Carter has a right to competence in a habeas proceeding and whether a federal district court can order an indefinite stay of a habeas proceeding.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether convicted criminals have a right to be competent during their habeas corpus proceedings and whether federal district courts are authorized to indefinitely stay habeas proceedings on competency grounds. Petitioner Tibbals argues that under Rees, there is no right to competence, nor may a district court grant an indefinite stay when federal AEDPA legislation aims to reduce delays in enforcing criminal punishments. On the other hand, Respondent Carter argues that under Rees, district courts may use discretion to grant stays, and because of the circumstances of Carter’s case, his competency claims merit an indefinite stay of his habeas proceeding.
EFFECT ON AEDPA’s GOALS
Tibbals maintains that enforcing an indefinite stay of a habeas proceeding would contradict AEDPA's purpose, which is to reduce delays in the execution of criminal sentences. If a federal court may stay a habeas proceeding until a prisoner demonstrates competence, the case remains pending and the sentence goes unenforced for as long as the prisoner claims that he is incompetent. If competence claims are not resolved over many years, as in Carter’s case, the stay remains in place and frustrates AEDPA’s goal of finality.
Moreover, the United States points out that capital prisoners such as Carter present a heightened risk of delay when federal courts allow competency-related stays in post-conviction proceedings: prisoners who face capital punishment have less incentive to fight for quick relief because they have an interest in prolonging incarceration and avoiding a death sentence. Tibbals predicts that if the Court allows the stay of Carter’s habeas proceeding, many other capital prisoners will seek similar, indefinite competence-related stay relief in their own cases.
In response, Carter argues that AEDPA’s interest in reducing delay in judgment does not, and should not, overcome the importance placed on a fair habeas proceeding. Carter emphasizes the pragmatic issues associated with speeding up a criminal sentencing, which might come at the expense of a fair proceeding for a petitioner at risk of losing any future opportunities for federal review. Noting that AEDPA has not been read to end delay “at all costs,” Carter argues that the speed should not overcome a petitioner’s interest in a habeas proceeding.
TENSION BETWEEN AUTHORITY OF STATE AND FEDERAL COURTS
Tibbals asserts that allowing federal district courts to stay habeas proceedings would demonstrate disrespect for state court judgments by failing to impose them for an indefinite period of time. Fourteen states support Tibbals, contending that a right to competence and to a stay of proceedings intrudes on state authority to issue valid judgments and have those judgments enforced by other courts. Because states have an interest in punishing their criminals, these states oppose giving federal courts authority to postpone state-approved punishments.
In contrast, Carter asserts that an absolute denial of competency-related stays would challenge the effectiveness of federal habeas corpus as a review procedure for convicted criminals. Carter notes that during habeas corpus review, as in all stages of a case, a convicted criminal is entitled to fair treatment by the court. Prisoners do not receive fair treatment or an opportunity for review if their incompetence prevents them from communicating their grounds for relief or obtaining a stay. Further, a group of retired federal judges submits that because district courts may use their discretion to stay any habeas proceeding, denying the courts’ authority to issue stays in habeas proceedings on competency grounds is an unjustified limitation on federal power. The judges claim that Tibbals’s concerns of delay in enforcing state court judgments are unfounded because by using careful discretion to issue and maintain stays, district courts avoid unnecessary, indefinite stays.
The issues before the Supreme Court are whether, under Rees v. Peyton, death row inmates have a right to competence in federal habeas proceedings challenging their sentences, and whether a federal district court has the discretion to indefinitely stay a habeas proceeding if an inmate is incompetent. In Rees, the Supreme Court instructed the district court to determine whether Rees had the mental competence to abandon his habeas action. Here, the Sixth Circuit determined that the district court acted properly by holding a competence hearing and in finding Carter incompetent, but remanded the case to the district court, explaining that it should stay only Carter’s claims that require his assistance.
Petitioner Tibbals argues that death row inmates do not have a right to competence in federal habeas proceedings and that district courts cannot grant an indefinite stay because of an inmate’s incompetence. Respondent Sean Carter contends that the Supreme Court need not address the right to competence argument because it can decide the case on a narrower ground: district courts’ inherent discretion to grant stays because of a prisoner’s incompetence.
RIGHT TO COMPETENCE IN FEDERAL HABEAS ACTIONS
Tibbals argues that death row inmates do not have a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings, and that the Sixth Circuit disregarded the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 4241 in reaching its decision. Tibbals maintains that the statute cannot apply to habeas proceedings because, by definition, habeas proceedings are civil actions against the government, not criminal actions against a defendant. Moreover, Tibbals emphasizes that section 4241 applies only to federal criminal defendants, and more narrowly, to defendants at trial or on probation. Carter does not satisfy any of these criteria, Tibbals claims, because Carter was a state criminal defendant convicted of a capital offense in state court, and is now a plaintiff in a federal civil action.
Carter counters that the real issue is not the right to competence, but whether a district court has inherent authority to grant stays because of incompetence. To support that authority, Carter asserts that the American legal tradition has long recognized the importance of a criminal defendant’s competence, from arraignment to execution, and that at common law, a defendant’s competence was a requirement at every stage of a case. The requirement, Carter asserts, is based on the moral principle that individuals should not lose their ability to assert viable defenses, even up to execution, simply because they happen to suffer from a mental illness. He argues that the requirement recognizes the possibility that a defendant, if not for his incompetence, might assert a valid defense.
Tibbals responds that after years of asserting a statutory right to competence, Carter, in the eleventh hour, now argues that district courts have the inherent discretion to indefinitely stay cases. Contrary to Carter’s assertions, Tibbals claims that habeas courts, at common law, lacked authority to stay a prisoner’s sentence because of incompetence and that only trial courts had that duty and discretion. Moreover, he asserts that the incompetency rule existed at common law because execution occurred within days of judgment, unlike the extended delays that are now common.
DISTRICT COURTS’ POWER UNDER REES V. PEYTON
Tibbals asserts that the Sixth Circuit misinterpreted Rees by applying section 4241 to habeas actions. Rees, Tibbals contends, does not recognize a right to competence, but instead applies to the scenario where a death row inmate seeks to terminate his habeas proceedings, but not when an inmate seeks to assist his counsel. He cites the Court’s one-sentence order in Rees as evidence of its narrow applicability and points out that the Court did not perform any statutory analysis in that case because it was careful to avoid recognizing a right to competence. Moreover, Tibbals claims that between 1966 and 2011, no lower court has invoked Rees or Section 4241 to stay a capital habeas action.
Carter responds that Rees confirms district courts’ inherent power to stay habeas cases, and not just the scenario when a defendant seeks to terminate his rights. He points out that after the district court found Rees incompetent, the Supreme Court ordered the case to be stayed, and the stay remained in effect for almost thirty years until Rees died and the case was dismissed. Carter reasons that if the Supreme Court was only concerned with Rees’s ability to terminate his proceedings, and not with his ability to proceed, then it would have adjudicated the case once Rees was found incompetent. Thus, Carter insists, Rees reflects a longstanding concern for a defendant’s mental competence and recognizes district courts’ authority to halt a habeas action where a defendant is incompetent to proceed.
DISTRICT COURTS’ DISCRETION UNDER AEDPA
Tibbals argues that without a statute or Supreme Court precedent mandating a stay of habeas proceedings on incompetency grounds, the remaining question is whether the district court had the discretion to grant a stay in Carter’s case. Tibbals answers in the negative because of AEDPA, which permits a federal court to grant habeas relief to a state defendant only where the state’s denial of the defendant’s claims was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” or was “an unreasonable determination of the facts . . . in the State court proceeding.” Citing the Supreme Court’s analysis of AEDPA in Cullen v. Pinholster, Tibbals asserts that when deciding a defendant’s federal habeas case, federal courts may only consider the state record. As a result, Tibbals claims that even if Carter were found competent, any new information he might add to the proceeding would be irrelevant because the federal court in a habeas action is limited to the state court record. Thus, Tibbals insists that Carter’s mental condition, and any new information he might add, have no bearing on the habeas action, and therefore, the district court cannot order a stay because of Carter’s incompetence.
Carter counters that the Supreme Court can decide this case solely on district courts’ inherent discretion to stay habeas cases because of a habeas petitioner’s incompetence. He argues that the Supreme Court has recognized instances, as in Rhines v. Weber, where a defendant’s interest in obtaining federal review of his claims outweighs the interest in finality, and thus, district courts can stay habeas cases to preserve a defendant’s ability to pursue claims. Further, Carter insists that district courts’ power to stay habeas cases is rooted in a legal tradition that recognizes the importance of a defendant’s competence at all stages.
Moreover, Carter maintains that AEDPA is consistent with granting a stay here because the statute should be interpreted in terms of its effects, especially when a prisoner is at risk of losing all future review of his claims. Pinholster, he argues, did not interpret AEDPA as a categorical bar to presenting new evidence in federal habeas cases. Rather, Carter contends that Pinholster restricts federal courts to the state record only when deciding whether a state court’s decision was unreasonable, but that evidence outside the state record could still be relevant to resolving a federal habeas case. He notes that in Pinholster, the Supreme Court recognized that state prisoners can still raise claims in a habeas action that were not adjudicated on the merits in state court, and for those claims prisoners could submit new evidence. Thus, for those claims where Carter’s assistance is necessary, he argues that granting a stay due to incompetence is proper because he would otherwise be losing those claims through no fault of his own.
In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether death row inmates have a right to competence and whether district courts can grant indefinite stays in habeas proceedings because an inmate is incompetent. Petitioner Tibbals argues that death row inmates have neither a statutory nor common law right to competence, and that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, district courts cannot grant indefinite stays because of an inmate’s incompetence. Respondent Carter argues that the Supreme Court need not address the right to competence argument because district courts have the inherent discretion to grant stays in such cases. This case will significantly impact the rights of death row inmates and prisoners seeking federal habeas review because it will determine whether a prisoner’s mental competence in one of the final stages of review can be enough to prevent a case, and potentially execution, from proceeding.
- Jonathan H. Adler, Should Habeas Proceedings Be Stayed If the Petitioner Is Incompetent? (May 28, 2011).
- Debra Cassens Weiss, Supreme Court to Decide on Competency Delays in Death-Row Habeas Cases (Mar. 19, 2012).