Ryan v. Gonzales
Annotate this Case
568 U.S. ___ (2013)
- Opinion (Clarence Thomas)
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
RYAN, DIRECTOR, ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS v. VALENCIA GONZALES
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
No. 10–930. Argued October 9, 2012—Decided January 8, 2013 [ 1 ]
Respondent Valencia Gonzales, a death row inmate in Arizona, sought federal habeas relief. His counsel moved to stay the proceedings, contending that Gonzales’ mental incompetence prevented him from rationally communicating with or assisting counsel, and that Gonzales was thus entitled to a stay because, under the Ninth Circuit’s Rohan decision, what is now 18 U. S. C. §3599(a)(2) requires a stay when a petitioner is adjudged incompetent. The District Court denied a stay, finding that the claims before it were record based or resolvable as a matter of law and thus would not benefit from Gonzales’ input. Gonzales thereafter sought a writ of mandamus in the Ninth Circuit. Applying Rohan and its recent decision in Nash—which gave habeas petitioners a right to competence even on record-based appeals—the court granted the writ, concluding that §3599 gave Gonzales the right to a stay pending a competency determination.
Respondent Sean Carter, a death row inmate in Ohio, initiated federal habeas proceedings but eventually moved for a competency determination and stay of the proceedings. The District Court granted the motion and found Carter incompetent to assist counsel. Applying the Ninth Circuit’s Rohan test, it determined that Carter’s assistance was required to develop four of his exhausted claims. It thus dismissed his habeas petition without prejudice and prospectively tolled the statute of limitations. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit, relying in part on Rees v. Peyton, 384 U. S. 312 (Rees I), located a statutory right to competence in 18 U. S. C. §4241, and found that a court could employ that provision whenever a capital habeas petitioner seeks to forgo his petition. It thus ordered that Carter’s petition be stayed indefinitely with respect to any claims requiring his assistance.
1. Section 3599 does not provide a state prisoner a right to suspension of his federal habeas proceedings when he is adjudged incompetent. Pp. 5–12.
(a) The assertion of such a right lacks any basis in the provision’s text. Section 3599 guarantees federal habeas petitioners on death row the right to federally funded counsel, §3599(a)(2), and sets out various requirements that appointed counsel must meet, §§3599(b)–(e), but it does not direct district courts to stay proceedings when petitioners are found incompetent. The assertion is also difficult to square with the Court’s constitutional precedents. If the Sixth Amendment right carried with it an implied right to competence, the right to competence at trial would flow from that Amendment, not from the right to due process, see Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U. S. 348 . But while the benefits flowing from the right to counsel at trial could be affected if an incompetent defendant is unable to communicate with his attorney, this Court has never said that the right to competence derives from the right to counsel. And the Court will not assume or infer that Congress intended to depart from such precedent and locate a right to competence in federal habeas proceedings within the right to counsel. See Merck & Co. v. Reynolds, 559 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 5–7.
(b) The Ninth Circuit identified its rule in Rohan, concluding there that a petitioner’s mental incompetency could “eviscerate the statutory right to counsel” in federal habeas proceedings. But given the backward-looking, record-based nature of §2254 proceedings, counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence. Rees I, supra, Rees v. Peyton, 386 U. S. 989 , and Rees v. Superintendent of the Va. State Penitentiary, 516 U. S 802, which involved an incompetent death row inmate’s attempt to withdraw his certiorari petition, offer 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. The Ninth Circuit’s interpretation is also not supported by McFarland v. Scott, 512 U. S. 849 , in which this Court held that a district court could stay an execution after a capital prisoner had invoked his right to counsel but before he had filed his habeas petition. In contrast, Gonzales is seeking to stay the District Court’s proceedings, and he sought a stay more than six years after initiating his habeas petition, certainly ample time for his attorney to research and present the claims. Pp. 7–12.
2. Section 4241 also does not provide a statutory right to competence during federal habeas proceedings. The Sixth Circuit based its conclusion largely on a misreading of Rees I, which did not recognize such a right. Moreover, §4241 does not even apply to habeas proceedings. By its terms, it 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 are incarcerated, not on probation. Furthermore, §4241, like the rest of Title 18 generally, applies exclusively to federal defendants, not to state prisoners like Carter. Finally, §4241(a) authorizes a 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 proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense,” while a §2254 habeas proceeding is a civil action against a state-prison warden, in which the petitioner collaterally attacks his conviction in an earlier state trial. Pp. 12–14.
3. For purposes of resolving these cases, it is sufficient to address the outer limits of the district court’s discretion to issue stays; it is unnecessary to determine the precise contours of that discretion. In Gonzales’ case, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying a stay after finding that Gonzales’ claims were all record based or resolvable as a matter of law, regardless of his competence. Review of a petitioner’s record-based claims subject to §2254(d) is limited to the record before the state court that heard the case on the merits. Any evidence that Gonzales might have would be inadmissible. In Carter’s case, three of his claims do not warrant a stay because they were adjudicated on the merits in state postconviction proceedings and thus subject to review under §2254(d). Thus, extrarecord evidence that he might have concerning these claims would be inadmissible. It is unclear from the record whether he exhausted his fourth claim. If it was exhausted, it too would be record based. But even if it was both unexhausted and not procedurally defaulted, an indefinite stay would be inappropriate, since such a stay would permit petitioners to “frustrate [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996’s] goal of finality by dragging out indefinitely their federal habeas review.” Rhines v. Weber, 544 U. S. 269 –278. Pp. 14–18.
623 F. 3d 1242, No. 10–930, reversed; 644 F. 3d 329, No. 11–218, reversed and remanded.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
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