The Myth of Autonomy Rights

By Kathryn E. Miller, on 20 July 2022

Supreme Court rhetoric, scholarly discussion, blackletter law, and ethical rules have perpetuated a myth that individual rights protect the autonomy of defendants within the criminal legal system. To expose this myth, I examine six rights that the Court has enshrined as essential decision points for criminal defendants due to the rights’ purported expressive and consequential functions: (1) the right to self-representation; (2) the right to plead guilty; (3) the right to waive a jury; (4) the right to testify; (5) the right to waive appeals; and (6) the right to maintain innocence at a capital trial. I conclude that each of these rights fails to protect defendant autonomy.

I then argue that genuine displays of autonomy under the criminal legal system take the form of resistance to the law, legal advocates, and the legal system. Thus, the autonomy of criminal defendants occurs not because of law but in spite of it. As such, scholarly discussions of the personal autonomy of criminal defendants should focus not on rights and rules but on acts of resistance. The current autonomy rights discourse is harmful because it obscures the system’s defects by framing discussions around individual rights instead of structural limitations. This lends itself to solutions involving procedural tinkering to better actualize individual rights instead of radical structural reform or abolition. By obscuring these structural defects and stressing the system’s protective qualities, the autonomy rights discourse presents the system not only as legitimate, but as functional, and potentially even successful. As such, a new scholarly frame is warranted: autonomy as resistance to law and the legal system. By illuminating the ways in which autonomy in the criminal legal system resembles autonomy under the American institution of slavery, the autonomy as resistance frame exposes the need for radical structural change and facilitates a reimagining of the criminal legal system.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States