Comparing Mental Health Courts and involuntary Civil Commitment Courts

Professor Michael Perlin1

1 New York Law School

There is a developing robust literature about mental health courts (MHCrts) in the United States, and researchers have begun to focus on a broad range of empirical issues, such as the extent to which defendants are competent to waive their trial rights in such settings, the significance of diversion, etc. Also, advocates and other scholars have engaged in vigorous debates about the value of these courts, and the extent to which they do or do not preserve and protect due process and civil liberties values. Finally, those who locate themselves in the therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) movement write frequently in support of them – and other problem-solving courts in general – as the best way to optimize TJ values in the court process. But there has been virtually nothing written from the perspective of what college professors always called “Compare and contrast.”

How are these MHCrts like or unlike the involuntary civil commitment courts which, for more than 40 years have adjudicated the question of whether individuals should or should not be committed involuntarily to inpatient psychiatric hospitals and which have been characterized as “greased runways” to such commitment? In the past, I have written about how, in these courses, adjudication takes place in “pitch darkness” in cases presided over by disinterested judges in which patients were often represented by even less-interested lawyers. We are still confronted with studies from the 1970s that showed that pro se patients had a better chance of release in some states than did those with assigned counsel. The disconnect between the prevailing “takes” on MHCrts and traditional civil commitment courts is profound. Yet, there has been virtually no commentary in the literature on that disconnect.

In this paper, I “compare and contrast” the two, and demonstrate that the reasons that the disconnect is so total is that the courts come from utterly dissonant perspectives. MHCrts – at least the successful ones – began with the conscious goal of promoting TJ in a way that did not impinge on civil liberties; traditional civil commitment courts grudgingly gave lip service to those Supreme Court cases that established baseline due process procedures in commitment cases, and generally have shown little interest in the nuances and complexities of the cases that are being decided, a lack of interest often reflected in the work done by lawyers in those cases. I conclude that attorneys must embrace the principles and tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence as a means of best ensuring the dignity of their clients and of maximizing the likelihood that voice, validation and voluntariness – the basic precepts of TJ – will be enhanced, and further believe that a rejection of the traditional civil commitment court model and an embrace of the modern mental health court model is the single best way that this dignity can be provided to litigants in these courts.

About the Association

The Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA) is a research and educational institute associated with Monash University. It is funded by the Law, Crime and Community Safety Council (LCCSC) and also from subscription income from its membership.

The principal objectives of the Institute include research into judicial administration and the development and conduct of educational programmes for judicial officers, court administrators and members of the legal profession in relation to court administration and judicial systems.

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