By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether a federal law on the appointment of attorneys requires that death row inmates have their legal proceedings put on hold if they are mentally incompetent to assist their lawyers.
The justices agreed to hear a pair of cases from Arizona and Ohio and decide the reach of a law that provides that a poor death row inmate pursuing a federal appeal after conviction be entitled to the appointment of attorneys.
The Obama administration took the position in one of the cases that federal courts have the inherent authority to put such proceedings on hold if the inmate was mentally incompetent.
Administration lawyers said the law at issue neither categorically requires nor rules out a stay of such proceedings. It said the law provided for the appointment of an attorney but does not guarantee a right of mental competence to assist the counsel in post-conviction appeals.
The case from Arizona involved Ernest Gonzales, who in 1991 was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 1999, he filed a federal habeas appeal and an attorney from the public defender's office was appointed to represent him under the federal law.
His attorneys said in 2006 that he had become mentally incompetent and was unable to assist them in the case. A U.S. court of appeals then put the proceedings on holding pending a determination of his mental competency.
The case from Ohio involved a similar stay of post-conviction proceedings, this time involving Sean Carter, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of his adoptive grandmother.
An appeals court put on hold his federal habeas proceedings on the grounds he suffered from mental illnesses, was incompetent and was unable to communicate information to current attorneys who have been claiming ineffective assistance of counsel by his trial lawyer.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the two cases during the term that begins in October with a decision likely early next year.
The Supreme Court cases are Ryan, director Arizona Department of Corrections v. Gonzales, No 10-930, and Tibbals, Warden, v. Sean Carter, No 11-218.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Bill Trott)