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In re M.C.

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

February 5, 2019


          Heard: October 1, 2018

         Civil action commenced in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department on January 20, 2017. The case was heard by Robert J. McKenna, Jr., J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Debra Kornbluh (Anne Kealy also present) for M.C. Suleyken D. Walker, Assistant Attorney General, for Department of Mental Health.

         The following submitted briefs for amici curiae:

          Susan Stefan for Aaron Needle & others.

          Brian Almeida, Michael Boyne, Jessica Deratzian, James T. Hilliard, & Michael Porter for Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, Inc., & others.

          Elizabeth B. McCallum, of the District of Columbia, & Mark I. Bailen for Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law & others.

          Karen Owen Talley, Committee for Public Counsel Services, & Robert D. Fleischner, Jennifer Honig, & Stanley J. Eichner for Committee for Public Counsel Services & others.

          Wayne Ramsay, pro se.

          Thomas F. Schiavoni, pro se.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         After being charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering and wanton destruction of property, M.C. was found incompetent to stand trial. He was committed temporarily to a psychiatric facility pending a civil commitment hearing, to be held pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 5; during that time, M.C. was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. Although he sought to have it conducted at a court house, the hearing on M.C.'s civil commitment was held in a hearing room at the facility. Toward the beginning of the proceeding, the court-owned recording equipment malfunctioned. Two different alternate recording devices were used to record the remainder of the hearing, with the result that the transcript of the proceedings is in places incomplete. At the end of the hearing, M.C. was civilly committed for a period of two months. Ultimately, after an unsuccessful motion to vacate and a recommitment for an additional period of three months, he was released.

         We are asked to determine whether conducting the hearing at the hospital rather than at a court house violated M.C.'s right to due process, particularly in light of the malfunctioning recording equipment. In addition, we must decide whether his right to due process was violated when the Appellate Division of the Boston Municipal Court denied M.C.'s motion to vacate the commitment order, in particular given the irregular recording procedures and the absence of a complete, verbatim transcript.

         We conclude that the available transcript provides an adequate basis for appellate review and contains evidence sufficient to support M.C.'s involuntary commitment. On this record, we conclude that M.C. was not denied due process of law. At the same time, however, we emphasize that a judge presiding over a civil commitment hearing pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 5, retains the discretion to determine the location of the hearing on a case-by-case basis. All civil commitment hearings, wherever conducted, must be recorded and must operate as open, public proceedings. These protections are critical to ensuring that civil commitment hearings safeguard individuals' rights to due process and equal access to the courts.[1]

         1. Background.

         The following facts are not disputed. In May 2016, M.C. was arraigned in the District Court on charges of breaking and entering and misdemeanor wanton destruction of property. He was released on personal recognizance. When M.C. appeared in court in August 2016, a competency hearing pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (a.), was ordered to determine whether M.C. was able to stand trial. That same day, the court ordered that M.C. be temporarily committed without bail and sent to the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital for evaluation, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (b). Ultimately, M.C. was released with the condition that he abstain from drugs and alcohol and report to the probation department in person twice a week. In late August 2016, he failed to report to the probation department, as was required under the terms of his release. When M.C. appeared in court in December 2016, on a default warrant, the court again ordered that he be evaluated pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (a.), for competency to stand trial. The defendant was found incompetent and was hospitalized at the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center (Solomon Carter), pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 16 (a).

         In January 2017, M.C. again was found incompetent to stand trial. That same day, the Commonwealth filed a petition under G. L. c. 123, § 16 (b), to extend the prior order of commitment. Later that month, a District Court judge yet again found M.C. incompetent to stand trial, further extended the order of commitment, and granted a request to change venue to the Boston Municipal Court. Solomon Carter also filed a petition for authorization to treat M.C. medically (administer antipsychotics) pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 8B, based on the prior diagnosis of schizophrenia. A commitment hearing was scheduled for later that month, within the statutorily mandated fourteen-day window.[2] See G. L. c. 123, § 7 (c); Hashimi v. Kalil, 388 Mass. 607, 609-610 (1983) (language of G. L. c. 123, § 7 [c], is mandatory and jurisdictional) . Two days before the hearing was to take place, M.C. filed a motion for a continuance. The motion was allowed, and the commitment hearing was rescheduled, to a date two days before the statutory deadline.

         The day before the rescheduled hearing, M.C. filed a motion to conduct the hearing at the Boston Municipal Court rather than at Solomon Carter. See G. L. c. 123, § 5 ("The court may hold the hearing [at a court house or] at the facility or said hospital").[3] As grounds for the motion, M.C. asserted that civil commitment hearings implicate an important liberty interest; that he was aware of no other class of litigants for whom adjudicatory court hearings were "routinely held in a non-neutral, segregated court setting such as a psychiatric hospital"; that a respondent who seeks to have a hearing conducted at a court house "is merely asserting his right to stand on an equal footing with all other non-disabled litigants"; that "[e]qual access to the courts is guaranteed as a matter of both equal protection and the non-discrimination provisions of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)"; and that "the recordings in most hospital hearings are not sufficiently complete or accurate to be transcribed." He did not file a request for an additional continuance and did not request to be heard on the motion. The Department of Mental Health (DMH) opposed M.C.'s motion on a number of grounds. It argued that holding the commitment hearing outside the facility would require special transportation for M.C. "at considerable time and expense" and that he "would pose a safety risk to himself and others" in transit to the court or in a holding cell at the court house. DMH also asserted that functioning digital recorders were available at the Solomon Carter facility and that "there would be no barrier or hindrance to the Court being able to provide a full and accurate copy of the recording if it were requested." In addition, DMC asserted that the ADA would not apply, and that, even if the ADA did apply, the safety requirements that were asserted with respect to the other claims were equally applicable to the ADA claim to prevent "harmful behavior [by M.C.] to himself or others." Noting that the "motion [was], inter alia, untimely," a judge of the Boston Municipal Court denied the motion.

         The Boston Municipal Court judge conducted the hearing on civil commitment in a "hearing room" on the seventh floor of the Solomon Carter facility. In an affidavit, M.C.'s hearing counsel described the room as follows:[4]

"The room provided for the mental health proceeding contains two long rectangular tables for counsel, the respondent and the attending doctor which faced one long rectangular table where the judge sits. "There are 4-5 chairs lined up behind 'counsel tables,' a chair at the end of the judge's table for the clerk, and a chair approximately diagonal from counsel table where the court officer sits. There is an American flag behind the judge's table."

         Initially, the hearing was recorded using a recording device whose batteries had not been replaced in some time. The recorder stopped functioning after the hearing began. When he learned of the equipment failure, M.C. moved orally that the remainder of the hearing be conducted at a court house. The motion was denied. Alternate devices then were used to record the majority of the hearing. These devices ...

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