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Court narrows stays of federal review

Jan. 8, 2013 at 11:14 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday federal law doesn't allow an incompetent prisoner to suspend federal court review of his case.

Ernest Valencia Gonzales, a death row inmate in Arizona, sought federal "habeas" relief -- review of his case to determine if he is held legally. But his lawyer asked to stay the review, contending Gonzales' mental incompetence prevented him from rationally communicating with or assisting his lawyer. The attorney argued Gonzales was entitled to a stay because a federal appeals court precedent codified into federal law "requires a stay when a petitioner is adjudged incompetent."

Reversing a federal appeals court, the Supreme Court ruled the federal law "does not provide a state prisoner a right to suspension of his federal habeas proceedings when he is adjudged incompetent."

The opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas said, "The assertion of such a right lacks any basis in the [law] provision's text. [The provision] guarantees federal habeas petitioners on death row the right to federally funded counsel ... and sets out various requirements that appointed counsel must meet .... but it does not direct district courts to stay proceedings when petitioners are found incompetent. The assertion is also difficult to square with the [Supreme] 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."

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