U.S. Supreme Court

High Court Appears Skeptical of Indefinite Stays for Competency in Capital Appeals

In oral arguments on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared unlikely to uphold indefinite stays when inmates lack competency to aid their lawyers in capital appeals.

Lawyers for death-row inmates Ernest Gonzales of Arizona and Sean Carter of Ohio argued that inmates must be mentally competent to assist their appellate lawyers, the Associated Press reports. The justices, however, focused on a second question: the propriety of indefinite stays in such cases.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioned use of “a mechanism that will permit stays in virtually every capital case,” the New York Times reports. “A lot of district judges and a lot of court of appeals judges don’t like the death penalty and will go to some length to prevent the imposition of that sentence,” he said.

Ohio Solicitor General Alexandra Schimmer acknowledged that limited stays may be appropriate in some cases, according to the Times report. She said it was “difficult to put forward a hard and fast rule” on the length.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pressed Schimmer for more of a bright line. “Well, give me a loose and soft rule,” he said. Schimmer suggested a presumptive one-year limit for stays.

The cases are Tibbals v. Carter, and Ryan v. Gonzales. The ABA has filed an amicus brief supporting appropriate stays for competency and use of a flexible standard in the determination.

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