Commissioner’s Override Deemed Unconstitutional in MA

Commissioner’s Override Deemed Unconstitutional in MA

HomeBlogMental HealthCommissioner’s Override Deemed Unconstitutional in MA

Mandatory Mental Health Commitments Update

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of K.J. v. Superintendent of Bridgewater State Hospital.

Massachusetts general laws chapter 123, §§ 8, 18 (a) requires a judge to determine – in the context of a civil commitment proceeding – whether the person requires involuntary commitment to a mental hospital.  If so, the judge has to decide whether that commitment needs to take place at Bridgewater State Hospital or at another Department of Mental Health facility.  Many people do not like being held at Bridgewater because of its prison-like atmosphere.

The case stemmed from the petitioner, K.J., who was facing criminal charges in Worcester District and Superior Courts, and deemed incompetent to stand trial.  After a commitment hearing, the judge determined that K.J. was mentally ill and required treatment at a mental hospital, but that the strict security of Bridgewater was not required for this person.  Despite that order, the Commissioner of Correction utilized the “commissioner’s certification,” which basically overrode the judge’s decision vis a vis the placement and ordered that K.J. did indeed need to be held at Bridgewater.  The commissioner’s certification only stated that the commitment to Bridgewater was “necessary to ensure his continued retention in custody.”

K.J. filed a motion to have Bridgewater found in contempt of the court order.  The judge declined to hold Bridgewater in contempt, although he noted that “[T]his court is troubled by [Bridgewater]’s arbitrary application of the provisions of [§ 18 (a)] and the clear separation of powers issues raised by the certification process.  However, the appropriate avenue is a direct appeal of the certification process and any other issue(s) raised by the hearing on the petition.”

K.J. later petitioned a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to address the issue.  Ultimately, the SJC found that the commissioner’s ability to veto a court order in the manner described in G.L. 123, § 18 (a) violates Article 30 of the Massachusetts Constitution (aka Declaration of Rights), which states that “the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them:  the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them:  the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them:  to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

By allowing the executive branch to reverse a court order, the SJC found that G.L. 123, § 18 (a) violates Article 30.  Going forward, it will be up to a judge, and a judge alone, to decide whether a person requires the strict supervision of the Bridgewater State Hospital.

The decision comes as no surprise.  Over a year ago, I wrote about the commissioner’s certification ability, and noted that “override provision of Section 18 is probably unconstitutional as a violation of the separation of powers, but will remain in place until challenged in the appellate courts.”

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