Illinois Appellate Court Finds New Commitment Law Unconstitutional
To download a PDF of the Illinois Appellate Court decision, click here:
Analysis by Patricia Werner
The IllinoisAppellate Court, 4thDistrict, declared Illinois’ new civil commitment standard faciallyunconstitutional. The new standard, which sets forth a definition ofdangerous conduct, lowered the threshold for involuntary commitmentto the point that it allowed for a deprivation of liberty without asufficiently compelling state interest, according to the court. Specifically, the statute allows for commitment when a person with amental illness is reasonably expected to deteriorate to the pointthat he is reasonably expected to engage in dangerous conduct,defined as threatening behavior or conduct that places anotherindividual in reasonable expectation of harm.
Whether the statehas a sufficient interest in confining a person alleged to bementally ill depends on the level of dangerousness the personpresents. The current statute however, fails to provide guidance asto the magnitude of the harm. Instead, according to the court, thenew standard would seem to allow commitment for virtually anyconceivable harm, be it “psychological, emotional or financialharm, regardless of severity.”
The newcommitment standard, which became effective June 1, 2008, was enactedby the legislature after family members of persons with mentalillness were unable to obtain help for their loved ones. Opponents ofthe legislation, including the Guardianship and Advocacy Commission’sLegal Advocacy Service, testified against the new statute. Theproposed language, opponents argued, was unconstitutionally vague andset the bar so low as to violate the United State’s Supreme Court’s1975 decision in O’Connor v. Donaldson which made clear the statecannot constitutionally confine a person who is dangerous to no oneand who can survive safely in freedom. In addition, opponents arguedthat the difficulty in obtaining help was attributable to otherforces such as a lack of available services and a generalmisunderstanding of the previous standard.
The LegalAdvocacy Service of the Guardianship and Advocacy Commission hasfiled appeals in the Second and Third Appellate Courts challengingthe law. Today’s decision was the first opinion addressing theconstitutionality of the new standard.
Analysis by Jim Gottstein
The decision is important because it is another appellate court taking the constitutional rights of people labeled with mental illness seriously. I say, “another” appellate court because most of the appellate courts considering these issues do tend to take them seriously when they get these cases, unlike the trial courts. Unfortunately, appeals are filed a minuscule percentage of the time the constitutional rights of people labeled with mental illness are ignored by the trial courts. This has led to the current situation where people’s rights in these cases are violated as a matter of course.
So, it is very important that when an appellate court has a chance to decide on such a case and, as here, ruled the statute unconstitutional. The court ruled the statute unconstitutional because people can be locked up under it without the state proving the person is a serious danger to self or others. What needs to happen is for people’s rights to be vigorously defended by their lawyers in every case as happened in this appeal in order for these types of cases to bring about real change. There is also another very important aspect of the decision, which is the Illinois Court of Appeals recognized the constitutional principle that the state has to use the least restrictive alternative (p 18). PsychRights has always suggested this right is a means to force states to provide humane, helpful approaches, rather than the coercive, counterproductive approach used now.
Apparently because the Court of Appeals invalidated a state statute, the Illinois Supreme Court will end up hearing the appeal so we should all stay tuned for that.