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Court rejects presumptive closure of commitment hearings

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  1. Court Access
The Washington Supreme Court earlier this month struck down a court rule that presumptively closed involuntary civil commitment proceedings to…

The Washington Supreme Court earlier this month struck down a court rule that presumptively closed involuntary civil commitment proceedings to the public on the ground that it violated the right to the open administration of justice under the Washington Constitution.

“A fundamentally different brand of justice is administered when courts are open and the parties, witnesses, and judge all conduct their affairs in the light of day,” Justice Pro Tem. Richard Sanders said for the court in the case of In re Det. of D.F.F.

The rule provided that involuntary commitment proceedings “shall not be open to the public, unless the person who is the subject of the proceedings or his attorney files with the court a written request that the proceedings be public.”

A woman who had been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment was granted a new proceeding after she challenged her commitment on appeal, arguing that the closure violated the right to the open administration of justice. The Washington Supreme Court agreed and ordered a new commitment hearing.

The case is "another in a long line of cases where the Washington Supreme Court has held that the state constitutional provision on open access to courts has teeth," said Eric Stahl, a Washington media lawyer. "It says 'Justice shall be administered openly in all cases,' and what the court has said time and time again is that 'We mean that,' even if in some cases it means reversing convictions or an involuntary commitment."

The court first addressed whether the woman, identified in the court opinion as “D.F.F.,” had standing to bring the suit. The state argued that she did not because the right to the open administration of justice was a right of the public at large, not necessarily a right that can be exercised by the accused because she was able to attend the proceedings.

The court said she did have standing because the constitutional right to the open administration of justice “provides for her right as a member of the public to attend the proceedings, but also her individual right to have the proceedings open to the observation and scrutiny of the general public.”

The court then determined that the court rule, Superior Court Mental Proceedings Rule 1.3, is unconstitutional. Washington caselaw requires that, in order to close a court proceeding to the public, a court needs to satisfy five constitutionally mandated requirements before doing so, including demonstrating a compelling need for closure and a weighing of the interests at stake. The Superior Court's Mental Proceedings Rule 1.3 did not meet those requirements because the rule prevented courts from undertaking the necessary analysis, the state high court said.

“This court has clearly and consistently held that the open administration of justice is a vital constitutional safeguard and, although not without exception, such an exception is appropriate only under the most unusual circumstances,” Sanders said. “[The rule] automatically closes the proceedings from the public without requiring or even permitting the trial court to make its constitutionally mandated determination whether those five requirements are met.”

Turning to the proper remedy to address the violation, the court concluded D.F.F. is entitled to a new proceeding. It did so because it believed that the mistakes constituted "structural errors," stating that "courtroom closures affect the very integrity of a proceeding, regardless of whether the complaining party can show prejudice."

The closure here had all the "hallmarks" of a closure that results in structural error, Sanders said. Namely: The trial court closed the courtroom based on interests other than those of D.F.F.; the closure affected the fairness of the proceedings; the court closed the proceeding without seeking objection, input or assent from D.F.F.; and the record lacked any hint that the trial court considered D.F.F.'s right to an open hearing when it closed the courtroom.

“The jurisdiction of the courts may be set forth on paper, but the authority of the courts — like every other branch of government — is derived from the people. The ability to imprison or involuntarily confine a citizen is an awesome power and, as such, is always at risk to be abused — with devastating results,” Sanders said. "The guaranty of open administration of justice is at the very heart of the fairness and legitimacy of judicial proceedings. The public bears witness and scrutinizes the proceedings, assuring they are fair and proper, that any deprivation of liberty is justified. Through this, citizens are guaranteed the strongest protection against unfair or unlawful confinement by the government — the protection afforded because the public is watching.”

Stahl said that D.F.F.'s commitment order was reversed shows "the court is serious about open government." In a lot of these cases, "there is very often not a third party or member of the press arguing for openness, [these arguments are] coming from the participants or the judges themselves. There is a broader principle that judges need to be cognizant whether the press is there or not, or whether there is a member of the public there or not, they need to be very careful in any proceeding" before considering closing it.

"The constitutional problem with the rule was that it started from a presumption that the proceeding would be closed, unless the request was made" to open it, Stahl said. "It is that presumption of closure that they found unconstitutional. The court is saying that you have to presume [these proceedings] are open to the public."