Our 2008 blog post about mental illness cases introduced two aspects of that topic. Last month we covered Mental Health Courts – specialized court programs which can set up treatment in lieu of incarceration for some criminal offenders with mental health problems. For those offenders, their mental illness may have been a contributing factor in their commission of a crime, but is not severe enough to warrant commitment to a mental institution.
In order to be committed, a mentally-ill person must be dangerous to himself or herself or to others, or be unable to care for himself or herself. Criteria vary from state to state, but are generally quite restrictive. In most states, for example, an expressed desire to kill oneself is not sufficient, but an actual attempt usually is. At least one – and usually two – independent evaluations by a psychiatrist are required before the court hears the case.
In many states, courts of general jurisdiction handle involuntary commitments. In other states, jurisdiction falls to the Probate Court. In Michigan, for example, involuntary commitments are handled by Probate Court, and both Genesee County Probate Court and Grand Traverse County Probate Court have detailed explanations of the process. In Texas, jurisdiction varies by county; commitments may be handled by County Constitutional Courts, County Courts at Law, or Probate Courts. Dallas County Probate Court has a special division: Dallas County Mental Illness Court.
In New Jersey, commitments are handled by Superior Courts – which in New Jersey are courts of general jurisdiction serving a single county, or two smaller counties. In Kansas, commitments are handled by District Court; in Maryland, by Circuit Court ; and in Mississippi, by Chancery Court.
People who find themselves in Mental Health Courts are there because they have committed a crime, so those courts are part of the criminal justice system. Mentally-ill people facing involuntary commitment have committed no crime, so their cases are heard in civil courts. But because they face a loss of liberty, they are entitled to the services of an attorney, just like a criminal defendant. In most states, they are entitled to the services of a Public Defender or appointed counsel if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. Some state Public Defender offices have special divisions dedicated to this task, such as the Fort Bend County Mental Health Public Defender’s Office in Texas, and the New Jersey Public Defender Office’s Division of Mental Health Advocacy. Note that in New Jersey, the court can order a temporary commitment with provision for a hearing within 20 days, which includes assignment of counsel for unrepresented patients (NJ Superior Court Rule 4:74-7).
To discover which court in your state handles mental illness commitments, go to CourtReference and select your state; there is a chart on the main state page that shows which case types are handled by which courts.