Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SJC: Civil Commitment Hearings Open to Public

The public has a presumptive right to attend judicial proceedings in Massachusetts that are held to determine whether someone should be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

"Public access to the commitment proceedings underscores the seriousness of a potential deprivation of liberty and combats tendencies toward informality that may threaten an individual's due process rights," Justice Judith Cowin wrote for the court in the case, Kirk v. Commonwealth, which was decided March 7. (Apologies for my delay in posting about it.)

However, the public's right to attend is not absolute, the SJC said. Civil commitment hearings may be closed to the public if four conditions are met:

  1. The party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced.
  2. The closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest.
  3. The trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding.
  4. It must make findings adequate to support the closure.
The case before the SJC involved Helen Kirk, a woman who in 2007 was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of her 3-year-old son. At issue in the civil commitment hearing was whether she was now well enough to be released from a state hospital to a residential facility.

Chazy Dowaliby, editor of The Patriot Ledger, has more details about the case at the New England First Amendment Center.

No comments: