Ruling Turns on a Provision Allowing a Prison Official to Override a Judge’s Determination About Suitable Housing for Mentally Ill Defendants
The Boston Bar Association (BBA) hailed today’s ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) that declared unconstitutional a provision of the state’s civil-commitment law that granted the Commissioner of Correction authority to effectively override a judge’s determination and insist that a mentally-ill individual be held at Bridgewater State Hospital, rather than a less-restrictive Department of Mental Health setting. The BBA had joined the Disability Law Center (DLC) and Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee (MHLAC) in an amicus letter urging that result.
In the impounded case, K.J. vs. Superintendent of Bridgewater State Hospital, the SJC ruled that the statute at issue violated the state constitution’s “fundamental principle of separation of powers that the executive and legislative branches cannot overrule a court order.” As stated by Justice David Lowy, writing for a 5-2 majority, the statute “gives two branches the authority to send the same person to two different places, with the executive branch possessing a final veto over the judiciary,” rendering it unconstitutional.
The BBA, DLC, and MHLAC had argued that the statute granting such authority to the Commissioner violates defendants’ due-process rights. Further, because it applies only to people who are in custody, the statute runs afoul of equal-protection principles, in that it has a disproportionate impact on low-income defendants and defendants of color, who are more likely to be held on bail and to be sentenced to incarceration (all of them men, as Bridgewater does not house women who are committed under the law).
As amici’s joint letter stated, “[U]pholding the Commissioner’s ability to override a judicial finding beyond reasonable doubt in favor of commitment to a less restrictive setting may have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx individuals with the effect of perpetuating existing racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.” However, the SJC did not address these issues, choosing to rule only on separation of powers.
Co-author of the joint brief Neil Austin of Foley Hoag, then-co-chair of the BBA’s Amicus Committee, stated, “We are very pleased by this ruling, which will have a positive effect on the treatment of Massachusetts residents with mental-health needs, ensuring that they receive the proper placement by placing that final decision where it belongs: with a judge who has considered all the evidence in the case.”