OCTOBER TERM, 1992
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
No. 92-725. Argued April 21, 1993—Decided June 24, 1993
After respondent Moran pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two psychiatrists concluded that he was competent to stand trial, he informed the Nevada trial court that he wished to discharge his attorneys and change his pleas to guilty. The court found that Moran understood "the nature of the criminal charges against him" and was "able to assist in his defense"; that he was "knowingly and intelligently" waiving his right to the assistance of counsel; and that his guilty pleas were "freely and voluntarily" given. He was ultimately sentenced to death. When Moran subsequently sought state postconviction relief, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing before rejecting his claim that he was mentally incompetent to represent himself, and the State Supreme Court dismissed his appeal. A Federal District Court denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It concluded that due process required the trial court to hold a hearing to evaluate and determine Moran's competency before it accepted his decisions to waive counsel and plead guilty. It also found that the postconviction hearing did not cure the error, holding that the trial court's ruling was premised on the wrong legal standard because competency to waive constitutional rights requires a higher level of mental functioning than that required to stand trial. The court reasoned that, while a defendant is competent to stand trial if he has a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings and is capable of assisting his counsel, he is competent to waive counsel or plead guilty only if he has the capacity for reasoned choice among the available alternatives.
Held: The competency standard for pleading guilty or waiving the right to counsel is the same as the competency standard for standing trial: whether the defendant has "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and a "rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him," Dusky v. United States, 362 U. S. 402 (per curiam). There is no reason for the competency standard for either of those decisions to be higher than that for standing trial. The decision to plead guilty, though profound, is no more complicated than the sum total of decisions that a defendant may have to make during the course of a trial, such as
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