CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, July 27, 2020

Holberg on Involuntary Commitment

Ross K. Holberg has posted No Court of Last Resort: The Future of Involuntary Commitment in the South Dakota Courts in Light of the Slow Death of Matter of Woodruff (South Dakota Law Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, 2020) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In 1997, the South Dakota Supreme Court decided Matter of Woodruff, a short opinion that dismissed as moot two appeals of involuntary mental health commitments. The court declined to reach the merits, reasoning that the appellants’ release from incarceration in the state hospital rendered their appeals moot. Since then, the South Dakota Supreme Court has published no opinion deciding an appeal of an involuntary commitment order. Practitioners confirm this is because they know their clients’ cases will be dismissed after their release consistent with Woodruff.

Two alarming phenomena follow: first, a vulnerable population has no access to judicial review of stigmatizing orders that result in the loss of legal rights; and second, the State of South Dakota has no judicial elaboration of its involuntary commitment laws. This lack of precedent does not just make South Dakota an outlier; it is a sign of a constitutionally infirm process. While other courts have been highly critical of Woodruff, it has remained deeply entrenched, due to norms descended from its errant mootness doctrine.

The court’s adjudicative avoidance is unacceptable in light of the “massive curtailment of liberty” the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges an involuntary commitment produces, as well as the courts’ duty to adjudicate. In fairness, justiciability doctrines often obscure this duty by propounding an imperative to judicial restraint. In this article, I propose a framework to supplant Woodruff. By integrating the justiciability doctrines that allow other states to develop mental health jurisprudence, this framework maintains a preference for access to the courts, by recognizing the distinctions between the limited jurisdiction of the federal judiciary and the plenary jurisdiction of state courts.

The two main methods courts rely on to adjudicate mental health commitment appeals are the collateral consequences rule of Sibron v. New York and the public interest exception to the mootness bar. Starting from the normative ground that an appeal of an involuntary commitment order is inherently a matter of significant public importance, this framework aligns with the views of scholars and jurists who prioritize the duty to adjudicate. Judicial review is regarded here as essential. This justiciability framework is thus designed to allow for elaboration of mental health statutes, individual access to the courts, and oversight of regional boards of mental illness.

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