Monday, August 06, 2012

California Supreme Court Decides Interesting Civil Commitment Case

Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in People v. Barrett.  The case involved the civil commitment of a woman with an intellectual disability on the basis of dangerousness.  California law provides for the civil commitment, on dangerousness grounds, of people who are either "mentally ill" or "mentally retarded."  Both classes of individual are entitled to trial by jury in their commitment proceedings, but only individuals who are subject to commitment for being "mentally ill" are entitled, under state law, to be personally advised of the jury-trial right.  Barrett, who was committed after her counsel waived her right to jury trial without her being personally advised of that right, argued that the distinction California statutes draw between "mentally ill" and "mentally retarded" individuals violated equal protection under both the state and federal constitutions.

The court rejected that argument.  It found a rational basis for distinguishing between "mentally ill" and "mentally retarded" individuals in deciding whether to personally advise them of their jury trial right.  The court concluded that a finding of dangerous "mental illness" does "not necessarily imply incompetence or a reduced ability to understand, and make decisions about, the conduct of the proceedings," but that a finding of dangerous "mental retardation" in fact "raises substantial doubts about ["mentally retarded" individuals'] cognitive and intellectual functioning sufficient to limit the personal and procedural role they play."  Justice Werdegar and Justice Liu filed separate concurrences in the judgment.  They argued that the distinction the state statutes drew (and the court accepted) was based on irrational prejudice) and accordingly violated the state constitutional prohibition against denials of equal protection.

Both Justice Werdegar and Justice Liu said they would follow, for these purposes, the U.S. Supreme Court's analysis in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, which held that a Texas city denied equal protection when it refused to grant a special use permit to a group home to be occupied by people with developmental disabilities.  Justice Liu noted that, after Cleburne, the Court had upheld the distinctions Kentucky drew between intellectual and psychiatric disabilities in its civil commitment process.  The case was Heller v. Doe.  But Justice Liu argued that Heller lacked persuasive force in interpreting the California constitution, because that case "did not apply Cleburne's analysis yet made no effort to distinguish it."  And, he argued, it was not clear that Heller, which did not involve the jury trial right, dictated a result here in any event.

Although they said the distinction California law drew violated the state constitution, Justices Werdegar and Liu joined the court's judgment because they found the error harmless under the analysis the court uses for violations of state law.

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