Emotional Competence, Rational Understanding, and the Criminal Defendant

62 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2006

See all articles by Terry A. Maroney

Terry A. Maroney

Vanderbilt University - Law School


Adjudicative competence, more commonly referred to as competence to stand trial, is a highly undertheorized area of law. Though it is well established that, to be competent, a criminal defendant must have a rational as well as factual understanding of her situation, the meaning of such rational understanding has gone largely undefined. Given the large number of criminal prosecutions in which competence is at issue, the doctrine's instability stands in stark contrast to its importance.

This Article argues that adjudicative competence, properly understood, asks whether a criminal defendant has capacity to participate meaningfully in the host of decisions potentially required of her. Further, sound assessment of such capacity requires attention to both the cognitive and emotional influences on rational decision-making in situations of personal relevance and risk. The role of emotion has been neglected, both in traditional accounts of decision-making and in assessments of adjudicative competence, and merits particular attention. This Article explores two examples of potentially competence-threatening emotional dysfunction - severe psychiatric mood disorder and organic brain damage - either of which may interfere unreasonably with decision-relevant emotional perception, processing, and expression. Existing legal theory and forensic testing methods, which reflect a predominantly cognitive approach, do not account adequately for such dysfunction. Shifting the adjudicative competence inquiry away from a general search for rationality and toward a more finely-grained examination of the cognitive and emotional influences on rational decision-making processes offers our best hope for giving meaning to rational understanding.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, psychology and psychiatry

Suggested Citation

Maroney, Terry A., Emotional Competence, Rational Understanding, and the Criminal Defendant. American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 43, p. 1375, 2006, USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 06-3, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=892474

Terry A. Maroney (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615 343 3491 (Phone)

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