High court creates federal patient-therapist privilege
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Communications between a psychotherapist and a patient are protected as confidential and disclosure of such communications cannot be compelled in federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision in mid-June.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the Court, asserted that effective psychotherapy “depends upon an atmosphere of confidence and trust in which the patient is willing to make a frank and complete disclosure of facts, emotions, memories, and fears.”
The privilege serves public ends as well, because such a privilege will encourage individuals suffering from a mental or emotional problem to seek appropriate treatment, the Court stated. The privilege will extend to psychiatrists, psychologists and licensed social workers, the Court ruled.
Proponents of a reporter’s privilege grounded in the First Amendment followed the Court’s ruling with interest. In 1972, a bare majority of a sharply divided Court recognized a qualified reporter’s privilege. Since that time, almost all federal courts and many state courts have acknowledged some form of qualified reporter’s privilege.
The Court recognized the therapy privilege under the authority of an evidentiary rule that permits federal courts to define privileges under the principles of the common law “in light of reason and experience.” The Court noted that all 50 states have recognized some form of a psychotherapist-patient privilege.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that the privilege should not extend to clinical social workers. Justice Scalia alone argued against the adoption of any privilege at all. (Jaffee v. Redmond)