O’Connor v. Donaldson: Due Process Rights of Mental Patients in State Hospitals


Following the Warren Court’s expansion of protections against unjust deprivations of liberty by the states in the criminal justice process, federal courts have become increasingly aware of less visible but equally pernicious violations of liberty through state civil commitment processes. The Supreme Court has declared that this form of confinement constitutes a “massive curtailment of liberty” which must be accompanied by procedural and substantive safeguards against its unjust application. One court observed that the use of this process to suppress dissidence or nonconformity in some instances is as real a possibility in this country as it is commonly thought to be in the Soviet Union:

Although we are reasonably certain that the shocking story revealed in The Gulag Archipelago could not take place in this country, the facts of Roy Schuster’s case are reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s treatise . . . [We have] described the appalling sequence of events in which Schuster–convicted of second degree murder and sentenced . . . to a term of years to life-was transferred in 1941 from Clinton State Prison to Dannemora State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in apparent retaliation for his efforts to expose prison corruption . . . Now 70 years old and languishing at Green Haven Correctional Facility, he remains incarcerated 44years after conviction of a crime for which the average time of imprisonment before parole is 15 years.

This recognition of the grave deprivations of liberty which may accrue from the commitment process has resulted in attempts by courts and litigants to restrict state commitment power by narrowing the range of acceptable justifications for such confinements and by imposing affirmative duties on the state when such confinements occur, particularly a duty to provide treatment. These issues, however, did not reach the Supreme Court until very recently.

In O’Connor v. Donaldson, the Supreme Court enunciated fourteenth amendment/due process restrictions on involuntary commitment of persons in state mental hospitals which call into question the constitutionality of many presently existing state commitment statutes. The Court formulated these restrictions while expressly avoiding a “right to treatment” issue which had been raised by the plaintiff and which formed the basis of the decision in the Fifth Circuit. The case therefore represents a mixed result for patients’ rights advocates: a success in gaining some potentially significant delineations of the right to liberty in this area, but a failure insofar as the Court declined to endorse “right to treatment” case law developed in the lower federal courts.

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