Godinez v. Moran

PETITIONER: Salvador Godinez, Warden
RESPONDENT: Richard Allan Moran
LOCATION: Red Pearl Saloon

DOCKET NO.: 92-725
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 509 US 389 (1993)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1993
GRANTED: Dec 14, 1992

Amy L. Wax - as amicus curiae, supporting Petitioner
Cal J. Potter, III - on behalf of the Respondent
David F. Sarnowski - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Richard Allen Moran allegedly shot three people and attempted to kill himself. He pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in Nevada state court. After a court-ordered psychiatric examination, Moran was found competent to stand trial. Two and a half months later, Moran told the court he wanted to discharge his attorney and change his pleas to guilty. Moran said he wanted to prevent anyone from introducing any favorable evidence. After some questioning, the judge accepted Moran’s waiver of his right to counsel and the guilty pleas. The court sentenced him to death. The Supreme Court of Nevada affirmed as to two of the murders.

After sentencing, Moran claimed he was mentally incompetent to represent himself and sought post-conviction relief in state court. The court rejected Moran’s claim based on findings from the psychiatric evaluations. The Supreme Court of Nevada dismissed his appeal. Moran then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court denied the petition, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that there was enough doubt at the time Moran pleaded guilty that the trial court should have held a hearing to evaluate whether Moran could make a “reasoned choice” among the alternatives given. The record did not support a finding that Moran was capable of making a reasoned choice.


Does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require a trial court to apply a heightened "reasoned choice" standard to determine the competency of a defendant to enter a plea of guilty or waive counsel?

Media for Godinez v. Moran

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1993 in Godinez v. Moran

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 92-725, Salvador Godinez v. Richard Allan Moran.

Mr. Sarnowski.

David F. Sarnowski:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Thousands of cases are processed in our criminal justice system in both the state and Federal courts throughout this land each day.

The lesser number involve the issue of whether or not a defendant is competent to proceed to trial.

In this case the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Federal habeas corpus review of a state court conviction and the imposition of three death sentences concluded that there is a heightened standard for the determination of whether a defendant may proceed to either waive counsel or to enter a plea of guilty, which occurred in this case.

We take exception to that ruling, and that is the issue that brings us here today.

However, there are some underlying findings by the state trial court that I would like to direct the Court's attention to, specifically they appear at page 21 of the Joint Appendix.

At that point the trial judge.

Judge Leavitt, determined that this petitioner, Richard Moran, was in fact competent.

He utilized language which tracked a Nevada statute on point, Nevada revised statute 178.400, which in turn is a formulation of this Court's pronouncement in Dusky.

He also made an express finding that Mr. Moran knew the consequences of his plea of guilty and that he can intelligently and knowingly waive his constitutional right to the assistance of counsel.

In 1988 the judge made additional findings which also appear in the trial record and are before this Court, particularly at the pages D-7 and D-8 of the petition.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Do you say that the finding of knowing and intelligent waiver is a higher standard or a lower standard or indistinguishable from what the Ninth Circuit found was the standard, which was I believe a reasoned choice?

David F. Sarnowski:

Our position in this case, Your Honor, is that once a defendant meets a standard of competence established by this Court in Dusky, then a defendant is competent to proceed either to waive counsel, to plead guilty, or to proceed to trial.

In this particular case--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

What do you think you have to show to say that a defendant is competent to assist counsel in his defense?

What do you think that encompasses?

Are there reasoned choices to be made when you end up going to trial and have to be represented by counsel and have to assist counsel?

David F. Sarnowski:

--To answer your second question first, yes, there are reasoned choices that have to be made--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Such as whether to testify?

David F. Sarnowski:

--Yes, Your Honor, that is a critical choice that each defendant if they choose to proceed to trial must make.

If they choose to proceed to trial they must decide whether or not they are going to have a jury trial or have a bench trial in those states which allow a defendant to waive a jury trial.

Those are critical determinations that the defendant has to make.

They are, in our estimation, equally important as to a defendant's cause as is the decision by a defendant to waive counsel or to plead.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, do you think then that in order to determine whether a defendant is able to assist counsel in his own defense that the determination of mental competence of necessity includes a determination of whether he can make a reasoned choice?

David F. Sarnowski:

We believe that is correct, Your Honor.

In this case two psychiatrists examined the defendant and expressed their opinions in terms of Dusky, the Dusky standard.

Neither expressed a view that he was incapable of either assisting counsel or proceeding to trial.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Did the trial court ask the wrong question and reach the right answer or did it ask the right question and reach the right answer, in your opinion?