On January 8, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Ryan v. Gonzales, which had been consolidated with Tibbals v. Carter, finding no right for mentally incompetent death-sentenced prisoners to stay federal habeas proceedings until they can be restored to competency. The opinion drafted by Justice Clarence Thomas reversed decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Sixth and Ninth Circuits, each of which relied on a different federal statute and a one-sentence order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 to stay proceedings.
In Ryan v. Gonzales, the Court examined whether Ernesto Valencia Gonzales was entitled to stay his federal habeas proceedings under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), the federal statute governing the provision of counsel to indigent defendants challenging their death sentences in federal court. The Ninth Circuit had held that Mr. Valencia Gonzales was entitled to stay his habeas proceedings under its 2003 decision in Rohan v. Woodford, which found that § 3599(a)(2) could not "be faithfully enforced unless courts ensure that a petitioner is competent" and concluded that "where an incompetent capital habeas petitioner raises claims that could potentially benefit from his ability to communicate rationally, refusing to stay proceedings pending restoration of competence denies him his statutory right to assistance of counsel." The State of Arizona attempted to challenge the Rohan decision on virtually the exact same grounds as Gonzales when Rohan was first issued in 2003, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Four new justices have joined the Court since that time.
In Tibbals v. Carter, the Sixth Circuit found a similar right to competence in 18 U.S.C. § 4241, which governs the determination of mental competence in trial proceedings prior to sentencing and after the commencement of probation or supervised release proceedings prior to the completion of the sentence. The Sixth Circuit relied in part on a one-sentence order issued by the Supreme Court in 1967 in which the Court directed that a petition for certiorari filed by a mentally incompetent prisoner be "held without action" until the prisoner could be restored to competence. In Rees v. Payton, Mr. Rees asked his counsel to withdraw a recently filed petition and expressed his desire to forgo further appeals. Because there was doubt about his competency, the Court directed the district court to order a competency hearing and, following a determination that Mr. Rees was incompetent, issued its one-sentence order holding the case indefinitely. Mr. Rees was never restored to competency and after his death several decades later the Court dismissed his petition without comment. The Sixth Circuit relied on this precedent in Tibbals to hold that federal courts have discretion to conduct preliminary competency hearings and, in Rohan, the Ninth Circuit held that Rees shows that incompetence is grounds for staying habeas proceedings. In both cases, the courts held that proceedings should have been stayed until the prisoners were competent.
With the assistance of the Project and McDermott Will & Emery, the American Bar Association filed an amicus brief on behalf of the death-sentenced prisoners arguing that in order for the attorney-client relationship to be meaningful, there must be knowing, rational communication and decision-making by the prisoner that is not possible while the client is mentally incompetent. The appropriate consequence, asserted the ABA, is a stay of the proceedings until the client is able to participate in his defense.
Justice Thomas, however, did not address that issue and instead wrote that the brief order in Rees offered no rationale for its decision and accordingly did not provide support that incompetent federal habeas petitioners were entitled to a stay of proceedings. Turning to the statutes in question, Justice Thomas found that neither statute implied a right to stay proceedings or a right to competency in such proceedings. Further, Justice Thomas stated that, "[g]iven the backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeas proceedings, counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner's competence."