Ryan v. Valencia GonzalesAnnotate this Case
568 U.S. ___ (2013)
- Opinion (Clarence Thomas)
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Nos. 10–930 and 11–218
CHARLES L. RYAN, PETITIONER
ERNEST VALENCIA GONZALES
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
TERRY TIBBALS, PETITIONER
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[January 8, 2013]
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
These two cases present the question whether the incompetence of a state prisoner requires suspension of the prisoner’s federal habeas corpus proceedings. We hold that neither 18 U. S. C. §3599 nor 18 U. S. C. §4241 provides such a right and that the Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and Sixth Circuits both erred in holding that district courts must stay federal habeas proceedings when petitioners are adjudged incompetent.
Ernest Valencia Gonzales was convicted by an Arizona jury of felony murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, first-degree burglary, and theft. The convictions arose from Gonzales’ repeated stabbing of Darrel and Deborah Wagner in front of their 7-year-old son during a burglary of the Wagners’ home. Darrel Wagner died from the stabbing, while Deborah Wagner survived but spent five days in intensive care. The trial court sentenced Gonzales to death on the murder charge and to various prison terms for the other crimes.
After exhausting state remedies, Gonzales filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court on November 15, 1999. While the petition was pending, Gonzales’ appointed counsel moved to stay the proceedings, contending that Gonzales was no longer capable of rationally communicating with or assisting counsel. He argued that mental incompetence entitled Gonzales to a stay under Ninth Circuit precedent. See Rohan v. Woodford, 334 F. 3d 803 (2003). In Rohan, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal statute guaranteeing state capital prisoners a right to counsel in federal habeas proceedings, 21 U. S. C. §848(q)(4)(B) (2000 ed.) (now codified as 18 U. S. C. §3599(a)(2)), could not “be faithfully enforced unless courts ensure that a petitioner is competent,” 334 F. 3d, at 813. Rohan thus 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, whether or not counsel can identify with precision the information sought.” Id., at 819.
Applying Rohan, the District Court denied a stay after concluding that the claims properly before it were record based or resolvable as a matter of law and thus would not benefit from Gonzales’ input. The court found it unnec-essary to determine whether Gonzales was incompetent, though it did find that he possessed “at least a limited capacity for rational communication.” Gonzales v. Schriro, 617 F. Supp. 2d 849, 863 (Ariz. 2008).
Gonzales thereafter filed an emergency petition for a writ of mandamus in the Ninth Circuit. While Gonzales’ petition was pending, the Ninth Circuit decided Nash v. Ryan, 581 F. 3d 1048 (2009), which held that habeas petitioners have a right to competence on appeal, even though appeals are entirely record based. Id., at 1050 (“While an appeal is record-based, that does not mean that a habeas petitioner in a capital case is relegated to a nonexistent role. Meaningful assistance of appellate counsel may require rational communication between counsel and a habeas petitioner”). Applying Nash and Rohan, the court granted the writ of mandamus, concluding that even though Gonzales’ “exhausted claims are record-based or legal in nature, he is entitled to a stay pending a competency determination” under 18 U. S. C. §3599. In re Gonzales, 623 F. 3d 1242, 1244 (2010).
We granted certiorari to determine whether §3599 provides a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings. 565 U. S. ___ (2012).
Sean Carter was convicted by an Ohio jury of aggra-vated murder, aggravated robbery, and rape, and sentenced to death for anally raping his adoptive grandmother, Veader Prince, and stabbing her to death. After exhausting his state-court appeals, Carter initiated federal habeas proceedings on March 19, 2002, in the Northern District of Ohio. Carter eventually filed a third amended petition, along with a motion requesting a competency determi-nation and a stay of the proceedings. The District Court granted the motion.
Following several psychiatric evaluations and a com-petency determination, the District Court found Carter incompetent to assist counsel. Applying the Ninth Circuit’s test in Rohan, it determined that Carter’s assistance was required to develop four of his exhausted claims. As a result, the court dismissed his habeas petition without prejudice and prospectively tolled the statute of limitations. Carter v. Bradshaw, 583 F. Supp. 2d 872, 884 (2008). The State appealed.
The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that “[f]ederal habeas petitioners facing the death penalty for state criminal convictions do not enjoy a constitutional right to competence.” Carter v. Bradshaw, 644 F. 3d 329, 332 (2011). It nevertheless located a statutory right to competence in §4241, relying, in part, on this Court’s decision in Rees v. Peyton, 384 U. S. 312 (1966) (per curiam) (Rees I ). [ 1 ] 644 F. 3d, at 332. The Sixth Circuit explained:
“By applying section 4241 to habeas actions, Rees addresses the situation where a habeas petitioner awaiting the death penalty may seek to forego any collateral attacks on his conviction or sentence, and defines a statutory right for the petitioner to be competent enough to (1) understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, and (2) assist properly in his defense.” Id., at 333.
The court concluded that “[a]nytime a capital habeas petitioner affirmatively seeks to forego his habeas petition, whether by action or inaction, . . . a district court may employ section 4241.” Id., at 334.
The court therefore amended the District Court’s judgment and ordered that Carter’s petition be stayed in-definitely with respect to any claims that required his assistance. Id., at 336–337. Judge Rogers dissented, arguing that there was no constitutional or statutory basis for the court’s decision. Id., at 337–342.
We granted certiorari to determine whether §4241 provides a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings. 565 U. S. ___ (2012).
Both the Ninth and Sixth Circuits have concluded that death row inmates pursuing federal habeas are entitled to a suspension of proceedings when found incompetent. The Ninth Circuit located this right in §3599, while the Sixth Circuit located it in §4241. Neither section provides such a right.
Section 3599(a)(2) guarantees federal habeas petitioners on death row the right to federally funded counsel. [ 2 ] The statute provides that petitioners who are “financially unable to obtain adequate representation . . . shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys.” Appointed attorneys are required to have experience in death penalty litigation, §§3599(b)–(d), and, once appointed, are directed to “represent the defendant throughout every subsequent stage of available judicial proceedings,” §3599(e). The statute also gives district courts the power to authorize funding for “investigative, expert, or other services” as are “reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant.” §3599(f). But §3599 does not direct district courts to stay proceedings when habeas petitioners are found incompetent. [ 3 ]
In addition to lacking any basis in the statutory text, the assertion that the right to counsel implies a right to competence is difficult to square with our constitutional precedents. The right to counsel is located in the Sixth Amendment. (“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”) If the right to counsel carried with it an implied right to competence, the right to competence at trial would flow from the Sixth Amendment. But “[w]e have repeatedly and consistently recognized that ‘the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process,’ ” not the Sixth Amendment. Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U. S. 348, 354 (1996) (quoting Medina v. California, 505 U. S. 437, 453 (1992) ; emphasis added); see also Drope v. Missouri, 420 U. S. 162, 172 (1975) (“[T]he failure to observe procedures adequate to protect a defendant’s right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent to stand trial deprives him of his due process right to a fair trial” (citing Pate v. Robinson, 383 U. S. 375, 385 (1966) )).
It stands to reason that the benefits flowing from the right to counsel at trial could be affected if an incompe-tent defendant is unable to communicate with his attorney. For example, an incompetent defendant would be unable to assist counsel in identifying witnesses and deciding on a trial strategy. For this reason, “[a] defendant may not be put to trial unless he ‘ “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding . . . [and] a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” ’ ” Cooper, supra, at 354 (quoting Dusky v. United States, 362 U. S. 402 (1960) (per curiam)). Notwithstanding the connection between the right to competence at trial and the right to counsel at trial, we have never said that the right to competence derives from the right to counsel. We will not assume or infer that Congress intended to depart from our precedents and locate a right to competence in federal habeas proceedings within the right to counsel. “We normally assume that, when Congress enacts statutes, it is aware of relevant judicial precedent.” Merck & Co. v. Reynolds, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 12).
The Ninth Circuit located a statutory right to competence in §3599. 623 F. 3d, at 1245 (citing Rohan, 334 F. 3d 803, and Nash, 581 F. 3d 1048). Because Rohan is the Ninth Circuit’s controlling precedent, we briefly address that decision.
In Rohan, a habeas petitioner asserted a right to com-petency based both on the Due Process Clause and on 21 U. S. C. §848(q)(4)(B) (2000 ed.). After discussing the history of the common law, which prohibited the indictment, trial and execution of mentally incompetent defendants, [ 4 ] the Court of Appeals stated that the petitioner’s due process claim raised “substantial” “constitutional ques-tions.” Rohan, 334 F. 3d, at 814. This conclusion is puzzling in light of the Ninth Circuit’s acknowledgment that there is “no constitutional right to counsel on habeas,” id., at 810 (citing Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U. S. 1, 10 (1989) (plurality opinion)), and that “there is no due process right to collateral review at all,” 334 F. 3d, at 810 (citing United States v. MacCollom, 426 U. S. 317, 323 (1976) (plurality opinion)). The Ninth Circuit was simply incorrect in suggesting that, in this case, there might be a constitutional concern—much less a “substantial” one—raised by the petitioner’s due process claim.
Invoking the canon of constitutional avoidance, the Ninth Circuit gave the petitioner the practical benefit of a due process right to competence in federal habeas proceedings through its interpretation of §848(q)(4)(B). [ 5 ] 334 F. 3d, at 814. In analyzing that statute, the Rohan court relied on a Ninth Circuit en banc opinion in Calderon v. United States Dist. Court for Central Dist. of Cal., 163 F. 3d 530 (1998) (Kelly V), overruled in unrelated part, Woodford v. Garceau, 538 U. S. 202 (2003) , which held that a prisoner’s incompetence is grounds for equitably tolling the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996’s (AEDPA) 1-year statute of limitations for filing habeas petitions. The Rohan court purported to be bound by the “rationale” of Kelly V—that a prisoner’s incompetence could “eviscerate the statutory right to counsel,” [ 6 ] Kelly V, supra, at 541—and concluded that “[i]f a petitioner’s statutory rights depend on his ability to communicate rationally, compelling him to pursue relief while incompetent is no less an infringement than dismissing his late petition.” 334 F. 3d, at 814.
We are not persuaded by the Ninth Circuit’s assertion that a habeas petitioner’s mental incompetency could “evis-cerate the statutory right to counsel” in federal habeas proceedings. Given 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. Indeed, where a claim is “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings,” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d) (2006 ed.), counsel should, in most circumstances, be able to identify whether the “adjudication . . . resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” §2254(d)(1), without any evi-dence outside the record. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 9) (“[R]eview under [28 U. S. C.] §2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. . . . This backward-looking language requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made. It follows that the record under review is limited to the record in existence at that same time—i.e., the record before the state court”). Attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors, and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.
Rohan also cited Rees I, 384 U. S. 312 , in support of its conclusion. 334 F. 3d, at 815. In Rees I, a state inmate on death row filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in District Court, alleging that the state-court conviction violated his constitutional rights. 384 U. S., at 313. The District Court denied his petition, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Ibid. Shortly after Rees’ counsel filed a petition for certiorari with this Court, Rees directed his counsel to withdraw the petition and to forgo any further proceedings. Counsel advised the Court that he could not accede to these instructions without a psychiatric evaluation of Rees, because there was some doubt as to Rees’ mental competency. Ibid. In response, the Court directed the District Court to determine Rees’ mental competence. Id., at 313–314. After the District Court conducted a hearing and found Rees incompetent, the Court issued a one-sentence order directing that the petition for certiorari be “held without action.” Rees v. Peyton, 386 U. S. 989 (1967) (Rees II ). [ 7 ] When Rees died several decades later, the Court dismissed the petition. Rees v. Superintendent of Va. State Penitentiary, 516 U. S. 802 (1995) (Rees III ).
The Ninth Circuit concluded that “[t]he record in Rees II shows that incompetence is grounds for staying habeas proceedings.” Rohan, supra, at 815. This conclusion is unwarranted. Rees I concerned whether an incompetent habeas petitioner may withdraw his certiorari petition, and it provides no clear answer even to that question. Likewise, the unique, one-sentence order in Rees II offered no rationale for the decision to hold Rees’ petition. As a result, Rees offers no support for federal habeas petitioners seeking to stay district court proceedings or for the Ninth Circuit’s opinions in Rohan, Nash, or this case. [ 8 ]
Gonzales barely defends the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of §3599. [ 9 ] He offers a single, halfhearted argument in support of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion based on our statement in McFarland v. Scott, 512 U. S. 849, 858 (1994) , that “the right to counsel necessarily includes a right for that counsel meaningfully to research and present a defendant’s habeas claims.” But McFarland was addressing whether a district court could issue a stay of execution after a capital prisoner had filed a request for counsel but before he had filed his habeas petition. Id., at 854–858. We held that a district court may stay a capital prisoner’s execution once the prisoner has invoked his statutory right to counsel. Id., at 859. McFarland has no relevance here where Gonzales is not seeking a stay of execution, but rather a stay of the District Court’s proceedings. Moreover, Gonzales moved for a stay more than six years after initiating his habeas petition. This was certainly ample time for his attorney to research and present the claims.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that §3599 does not provide federal habeas petitioners with a “statutory right” to competence. [ 10 ]
The Sixth Circuit reached the same conclusion as the Ninth Circuit but located the statutory right to competence during habeas proceedings in 18 U. S. C. §4241. Relying largely on Rees I, the Sixth Circuit concluded that §4241 provides a statutory right to competence. 644 F. 3d, at 333. But as discussed, Part II–A, supra, Rees I did not recognize a statutory right to competence in federal ha-beas proceedings. [ 11 ] Moreover, §4241 does not even apply to such proceedings. Section 4241(a) provides:
“At any time after the commencement of a prosecution for an offense and prior to the sentencing of the defendant, or at any time after the commencement of probation or supervised release and prior to the completion of the sentence, the defendant or the attorney for the Government may file a motion for a hearing to determine the mental competency of the defendant. The court shall grant the motion, or shall order such a hearing on its own motion, if there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suf-fering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.”
By its own terms, §4241 applies only to trial proceedings prior to sentencing and “at any time after the commencement of probation or supervised release.” Federal habeas proceedings, however, commence after sentencing, and federal habeas petitioners, by definition, are incarcerated, not on probation.
Furthermore, §4241, like the rest of Title 18 generally, applies exclusively to federal defendants and probationers subject to prosecution by the United States. Carter is not, and does not claim to be, a federal defendant. Rather, he is a state prisoner challenging the basis of his conviction in a federal civil action. See Blair v. Martel, 645 F. 3d 1151, 1155 (CA9 2011) (“By its own terms, §4241 does not apply unless a federal criminal defendant is on trial or is released on probation”).
Finally, §4241(a) authorizes the district court to grant a motion for a competency determination if there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant’s mental incompetence renders him “unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.” (Emphasis added.) See also §4241(d). [ 12 ] A habeas proceeding under §2254, however, is not a “proceedin[g] against” the habeas petitioner; this, on the other hand, is a civil action against the warden of the state prison. And, a federal habeas petitioner does not mount a “defense” to the government’s prosecution. Rather, the petitioner collaterally attacks his conviction at an earlier state trial. Accordingly, the statutory right to competence provided in §4241 is simply inapplicable to federal habeas proceedings.
We would address Carter’s arguments in defense of the Sixth Circuit’s decision, but, there are none. Carter’s brief informed us that “[t]his Court need not consider the statutory argument with which the [petitioner’s] brief begins—i.e., that there is no ‘statutory right’ under 18 U. S. C. §4241 to be competent in habeas proceedings.” Brief for Respondent in No. 11–218, p. 15. Apparently, Carter found the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning indefensible. We agree.
Both Gonzales and Carter argued at length in their briefs and at oral argument that district courts have the equitable power to stay proceedings when they determine that habeas petitioners are mentally incompetent. [ 13 ] Neither petitioner disputes that “[d]istrict courts . . . ordinarily have authority to issue stays, where such a stay would be a proper exercise of discretion.” Rhines v. Weber, 544 U. S. 269, 276 (2005) (citation omitted); see also Enelow v. New York Life Ins. Co., 293 U. S. 379, 382 (1935) (explaining that a district court may stay a case “pending before it by virtue of its inherent power to control the progress of the cause so as to maintain the orderly processes of justice”). Similarly, both petitioners agree that “AEDPA does not deprive district courts of [this] authority.” Rhines, supra, at 276. Petitioners and respondents disagree, however, about the types of situations in which a stay would be appropriate and about the permissible duration of a competency-based stay. We do not presume that district courts need unsolicited advice from us on how to manage their dockets. Rather, the decision to grant a stay, like the decision to grant an evidentiary hearing, is “generally left to the sound discretion of district courts.” Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U. S. 465, 473 (2007) . For pur-poses of resolving these cases, it is unnecessary to determine the precise contours of the district court’s discretion to issue stays. We address only its outer limits.
In Gonzales’ case, the District Court correctly found that all of Gonzales’ properly exhausted claims were record based or resolvable as a matter of law, irrespective of Gonzales’ competence. [ 14 ] 617 F. Supp. 2d, at 863; see also State v. Gonzales, 181 Ariz. 502, 509–515, 892 P. 2d 838, 845–851 (1995) (adjudicating Gonzales’ claims on the merits). The court therefore denied Gonzales’ motion for a stay. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in so holding, because a stay is not generally warranted when a petitioner raises only record-based claims subject to 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). As previously noted, review of such claims “is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Pin-holster, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9). Accordingly, any evidence that a petitioner might have would be inadmis-sible. Ibid. (“[T]he record under review is limited to the record in existence at that same time—i.e., the record before the state court”). Because federal habeas is “a ‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,’ not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal,” the types of errors redressable under §2254(d) should be apparent from the record. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 13) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307, 332, n. 5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment)). Counsel can read the record.
In Carter’s case, the District Court concluded that four of Carter’s claims could potentially benefit from Carter’s assistance. [ 15 ] However, three of these claims were adjudicated on the merits in state postconviction proceedings and, thus, were subject to review under §2254(d). See State v. Carter, No. 99–T–0133, 2000 Ohio App. LEXIS 5935, *5–*13 (Dec. 15, 2000). Any extrarecord evidence that Carter might have concerning these claims would therefore be inadmissible. Pinholster, supra, at ___. Consequently, these claims do not warrant a stay.
It is unclear from the record whether Carter exhausted the fourth claim. [ 16 ] If that claim was exhausted, it too would be record based. But even if Carter could show that the claim was both unexhausted and not procedurally defaulted, [ 17 ] an indefinite stay would be inappropriate. “AEDPA’s acknowledged purpose” is to “ ‘reduc[e] delays in the execution of state and federal criminal sentences.’ ” Schriro, supra, at 475 (quoting Woodford, 538 U. S., at 206). “Staying a federal habeas petition frustrates AEDPA’s objective of encouraging finality by allowing a petitioner to delay the resolution of the federal proceedings.” Rhines, 544 U. S., at 277. In the context of discussing stay and abeyance procedures, we observed:
“[N]ot all petitioners have an incentive to obtain federal relief as quickly as possible. In particular, capital petitioners might deliberately engage in dilatory tactics to prolong their incarceration and avoid execution of the sentence of death. Without time limits [on stays], petitioners could frustrate AEDPA’s goal of finality by dragging out indefinitely their federal ha-beas review.” Id., at 277–278.
The same principle obtains in the context of competency-based stays. At some point, the State must be allowed to defend its judgment of conviction. [ 18 ]
If a district court concludes that the petitioner’s claim could substantially benefit from the petitioner’s assistance, the district court should take into account the likelihood that the petitioner will regain competence in the foreseeable future. Where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate and merely frustrates the State’s attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment.
The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is reversed. We vacate the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.