California Supreme Court Rules Court Has Discretion Whether to Permit Competent Defendant to Represent Self

Article excerpt

Following the United States Supreme Court decision in Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 64 (2008), the California Supreme Court has ruled that trial courts may deny the right to represent themselves to defendants who fall into a "gray area" between those who are competent to stand trial and those who are competent to conduct their own trial. People v. Johnson, 2012 Cal. LEXIS 600 (January 30, 2012). In so ruling, the Court found that California law has never afforded defendants the right to represent themselves, but only permits self-representation in noncapital cases in the judge's discretion. In capital cases, the law specifically requires defendants to be represented by counsel at all stages of the proceedings. The legislative history states that pro se litigants cause unnecessary delays at trial and generally disrupt the proceedings. The history further provides that the burden on the justice system is not outweighed by any benefits to defendants who generally gain nothing by representing themselves.

Prior to Edwards, and because California courts are required to follow federal constitutional law, they afforded criminal defendants the right to represent themselves in spite of the state law based upon the United States Supreme Court decision in Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), holding that defendants have a Sixth Amendment Constitutional right to self-representation. California courts further presumed that a defendant's right to self-representation was absolute based upon Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993). That case held that a defendant found competent to stand trial was allowed to waive counsel and plead guilty, rejecting the argument that federal law required a higher standard of competence for waiving counsel or pleading guilty than to stand trial. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court held in Edwards that a trial court could insist that a defendant proceed with counsel even though the court had found him competent to stand trial.

In this case, Johnson was charged with two separate assaults, one an early-morning brutal sexual assault on a bar tender and later the same day, hitting the patron of a sandwich shop with a metal chair rendering him unconscious. A single judge presided over all the proceedings. The defendant was originally represented by counsel but early on requested to represent himself, which request was granted. During pre-trial proceedings, the defendant conducted himself in an unusual manner and the nature and content of letters he filed with the court and others cast doubt on his competence. …