Sane defendants may be denied self-representation, court rules


Criminal defendants who are sane enough to be tried for a crime may nevertheless be too mentally ill to act as their own lawyers, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday.

In rejecting an appeal from a man denied the right to represent himself, the state high court said judges may insist that defendants be represented if they suffer from “a severe mental illness to the point where [they] cannot carry out the basic tasks” needed to mount a defense.

But Justice Ming W. Chin, writing for the court, warned judges to apply the standard cautiously. Self-representation should not be denied simply because attorneys on both sides would ensure a more efficient or fairer proceeding, he said.


“Criminal defendants still generally have a 6th Amendment right to represent themselves,” Chin wrote. “Self-representation by defendants who wish it and validly waive counsel remains the norm and may not be denied lightly.”

The ruling stemmed from an appeal by Andrew D. Johnson, convicted in Solano County of sexually assaulting a bartender in 2007 and hitting another person over the head with a chair. The trial judge deemed Johnson competent to stand trial because he understood the nature and purpose of the proceedings. But the judge also ruled that Johnson could not represent himself because he suffered from disorganized thinking, an inability to concentrate and anxiety.