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3 Arizona cases go before U.S. Supreme Court

3 Arizona cases go before U.S. Supreme CourtThe United States Supreme Court is going to decide Oct. 5 whether to hear a case involving a 2004 Arizona law that requires proof of citizenship to register to vote.

It is one of a handful of Arizona cases that the high court is considering in the 2012-2013 term, which begins Oct 1.

The court has already accepted an Arizona death-penalty case that will be considered Oct. 9.  Attorney General Tom Horne will argue the case, which is going to determine whether a capital defendant who lacks the capacity to understand his legal situation or help his attorneys can suspend proceedings in federal court indefinitely to get his mental problems treated.

And an Arizona law that denies health benefits to domestic partners of state employees probably won’t be heard since the court considered it at a Sept. 24 conference and did not immediately grant review.

Professor Paul Bender, who teaches constitutional law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, said cases that aren’t granted review on the day of the conference are typically officially denied a week later, but the case could still be considered at another conference.

Voter Registration

The voter registration case, Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, is on the agenda of the court’s Oct. 5 conference, where the justices will decide which cases among many to grant review.

The question before the court is whether the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong in using a “new, heightened” test to determine whether the National Voter Registration Act supersedes Arizona’s law. 

The federal law allows voters to fill out a mail-in form and swear under penalty of perjury they are citizens, but no proof of identity is required as with Arizona’s law.

A 12-member 9th Circuit panel ruled April 17 that the National Voter Registration Act trumps Arizona’s law, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 as Proposition 200. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat in on a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit in 2010 that ruled the same way.

“My guess is the court is not going to take that one,” Bender said.

He said the issue in the Arizona case is narrow and not of national importance, and Arizona’s case deals with registration. Most litigation around the country addresses identification requirements at the polls.

The state argues in its petition that the court should grant review because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals created a new way of analyzing whether state laws are preempted by the Elections Clause of the Constitution.

The clause gives states the authority to set when, where and how elections are held, but Congress may alter those laws at any time.

The state’s petition maintains that the 9th Circuit’s analysis conflicts with Supreme Court precedent and other federal courts.

Lawyers for the Inter Tribal Council argued in their brief that the federal law supersedes the state’s “conflicting registration requirement” because the Elections Clause gives Congress paramount authority.

Competency

Attorneys for an Arizona death-row prisoner are asking the court to allow mentally incompetent defendants to suspend their federal proceedings while they get treatment.

Ernest Gonzales’ attorneys say he is entitled to representation, but he has refused to meet with them in the past six years as his mental health has deteriorated and a U.S. District Court judge has refused to hold a competency hearing. Competency means the defendant understands his legal predicament and has the ability to assist his defense attorneys.

Judge Stephen McNamee has ruled that federal habeas corpus proceedings don’t require the input of the defendant because they are a review of the record of state proceedings.

“He said you don’t need the client, this is all record-based, you don’t need to talk to the client,” said Dale Baich, who oversees the Federal Public Defender’s Habeas Unit in Phoenix.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned McNamee’s decision, and now the U.S. Supreme Court is going to decide whether the right to appointed counsel means a death-row inmate can indefinitely suspend the federal proceedings if he isn’t able to help his defense attorney.

Horne said the 9th Circuit decision effectively converts a sentence of death into a life imprisonment sentence since restoring a person to competency can take years or may never happen.

Meanwhile, the case can move forward because there is no new evidence introduced in federal proceedings, so his attorneys can defend him without his assistance, Horne said.

“If he were to tell them things outside the record, he couldn’t use it,” Horne said.

Horne said victims and the state also have a right to finality in its convictions.

“There are studies that show that families of victims recover better once they have a finality of justice being done,” Horne said. “This has gone on for over 20 years.”

Gonzales stabbed Darrel Wagner to death on Feb. 20, 1990, and seriously injured Wagner’s wife, Deborah, when they came home and found him burglarizing their Phoenix home.

Gonzales’ attorneys asked the court for a determination of competency in 2006.

Baich said Gonzales has a history of schizophrenia and the Department of Corrections sent him to Arizona State Hospital and began treating him, and that the state’s doctor determined he was impaired.

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