Lawyer Jokes Work in Either Direction

How about those yuksters up at the Supreme Court? In yesterday's oral argument in Indiana v. Edwards, Justices Kennedy and Scalia each made fun of lawyers (sort of), but to support different results. The case presents the question of what standard of competency a defendant must meet in order to waive his right to counsel. Current law indicates that competency to stand trial is the same standard as competency to waive counsel.

This is odd. To be competent to stand trial, one must be able to understand the proceedings and assist in his own defense. A defendant could satisfy that standard and still be unable actually defend himself. By way of analogy, I think I would be competent to assist a professional basketball team. I understand the game reasonably well and I could assist by doing things like getting towels and Gatorade for the players. But I certainly am not competent actually to play in a professional basketball game.

Justice Kennedy took a somewhat different tack at oral argument, distinguishing technical knowledge of the law from the judgment necessary to conduct a trial. "There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam," he said (quoted in the NY Times story here). But Justice Scalia, who values the 6th Amendment right to represent oneself to a greater degree, took a very different view. In response to the state's argument that the standard ought to be whether the defendant can communicate coherently, Justice Scalia replied, in an apparent reference to Supreme Court advocates: “Cannot communicate coherently? I sometimes think that the lawyers cannot communicate coherently.”

Proving once again that lawyer jokes will never be un-PC.

Posted by Mike Dorf