(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Supreme Court prediction
The first case for next week is Sell v. U.S., a criminal case presenting the very interesting question whether the government can forcibly medicate a mentally ill defendant, who is incompetent to stand trial, for the sole and express purpose of making him competent to stand trial. The Eighth Circuit said (pdf) "yes, the government can do that."

The initial thing that you have to understand is that it is unconstitutional to make someone stand trial if he is incompetent to assist in his own defense. In many cases involving defendants who are incompetent because of mental illness, the government can say with at least a semi-straight face "we aren't trying to medicate the defendant in order to make him competent to stand trial; we want to medicate him in order to stop him from being a danger to himself and/or others, and the fact that we can put his ass on trial in his medicated state is just a happy side effect from our point of view." But this particular case does not involve that alternative reason/excuse; the lower court found as a matter of fact that the guy wasn't dangerous and that making him competent to stand trial was the sole justification for the forced medication, and that's the way the Supreme Court agreed to view the case. So the question is presented here in a factually pure form. And actually it's even a little narrower than that: can the government forcibly medicate you in order to make you competent to stand trial on charges of non-violent crimes? (You may wonder how conspiracy to commit murder could be a "non-violent" crime, but that's the way the Supreme Court has framed the question.) The argument in favor of forced medication would be a bit stronger for violent crimes, on the view that society's interest in punishing violent crimes is even weightier than its interest in punishing non-violent ones. But again, this case is presented as involving non-violent crimes. So if anybody can ever win a case challenging forced medication, it's Dr. Sell (a psychotic dentist). By the way, the argument against forced medication is not just an argument about personal autonomy (through the "liberty" aspect of the Fifth Amendment, mostly); there is also, among other things, the contention that the side effects of anti-psychotic medication would themselves affect the defendant's ability to receive a fair trial.

What will the Court do? Well, we know from an earlier case (Riggins) that a majority of the Court has said that the governmental interest in making someone competent to stand trial "might" justify forced medication. But that "might" is unhelpful; this case asks, "well does it or doesn't it??" Justice Kennedy, speaking only for himself in that case, said "I don't think it does, except maybe in really rare cases"; this suggests that he'll vote to reverse, unless he's changed his mind. My guess is that if Justice Kennedy votes to reverse, so will the four quasi-liberal Justices and maybe Justice O'Connor too; so I say "REVERSE".

posted by sam 6:42 AM 0 comments


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