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C. Competency and commitment proceedings


  • 4th Circuit

    Even assuming, arguendo, that the public’s right of access extends to civil commitment hearings conducted pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4245, the public is not guaranteed a direct view of all that transpires. See United States v. Baker, 45 F.3d 837, 846 n.8 (4th Cir. 1995) (affirming use of videoconferencing to conduct a commitment hearing).

    In an unpublished decision, a district court in the Fourth Circuit denied a motion to hold a competency hearing in camera while observing that “[c]ompetency hearings are routinely held in open court in this district,” and holding that “[n]othing in the forensic reports filed in this case addresses details which are so unique or sensitive as to justify a closed hearing and defense counsel have not articulated any compelling reasons to overcome the strong First and Sixth Amendment interests in open criminal proceedings.” United States v. Moussaoui, No. CRIM.01-455-A, 2002 WL 1311734, *1 (E.D. Va. June 11, 2002).

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  • Idaho

    Mental commitment case records (I.C.A.R. 32(g)(10)), records maintained by the court generated to provide a court with a psychological evaluation of an individual or to determine an individual’s need for counseling, rehabilitation, treatment or assistance with personal conflicts (I.C.A.R. 32(g)(17)) and all court filings in guardianship or conservatorship proceedings (I.C.A.R. 32(g)(19)) are exempt from disclosure.  In contrast, the Idaho Supreme Court has held that records regarding sex offenders and their commitment are considered public.  “Public access assists the community in being observant of convicted sexual offenders in order to prevent them from recommitting sexual crimes.”  Smith v. State, 146 Idaho 822, 839, 203 P.3d 1221 (2009).

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  • Pennsylvania

    Under Pennsylvania law, hearings on whether a person is incapacitated under Pennsylvania’s Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code “may be closed to the public and without a jury unless the alleged incapacitated person or his counsel objects. The hearing shall be closed and with or without a jury if the person alleged to be incapacitated or his counsel so requests.” 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5511(a).

    In In re Estate of DuPont, 2 A.3d 516, 520-25 (Pa. 2010), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that where records used to declare a person incapacitated have already been sealed by order of the orphan’s court, a person seeking to unseal those records has the burden to “demonstrate good cause” for modifying the already existing sealing order. Applying that standard, the Supreme Court held that the lower court did not err in denying a request to unseal records that were previously filed under seal years earlier in the capacity proceeding of John E. DuPont, an eccentric heir who murdered a former Olympic wrestler living on his property. The Supreme Court first noted that DuPont’s incapacity proceedings “necessitate[d] the exposure of inherently private personal information – such as detailed financial, medical and psychiatric records . . . .” Id. at 521-22. The court then held that “the good cause for sealing the record in this matter is inherent in the nature of the proceeding and is of no less weight today than it was at the time the [c]ourt originally ordered the record to be sealed.” Id. at 519 (citation and quotation omitted).

    Section 304(e)(4) of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act (PMHPA), 50 P.S. § 7304(e)(4), provides that in “formal” commitment proceedings (i.e., those resulting in commitment not exceeding 90 days), “the hearing shall be public unless it is requested to be private by the person or his counsel.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of that section. See In re Seegrist, 539 A.2d 799, 800 (Pa. 1988). Closure is not mandated simply because a party so requests. See Commonwealth v. Milice, 584 A.2d 997, 998 (Pa. Super. 1991) (“Absent more explicit statutory language and in light of the lengthy and powerful tradition of openness, we are unable to conclude that the Mental Health Procedures Act mandates closure of a hearing on the mere request of a patient.”); see also R.W. v. Hampe, 626 A.2d 1218, 1222 (Pa. Super. 1993) (“The potential disclosure of mental illness does not necessarily mandate the closure of judicial proceedings.”). Instead, closure may only be warranted where an open hearing would cause “a clearly defined and serious injury to the party seeking closure,” “something more” than the mere assertion that confidential testimony will be presented. Milice, 584 A.2d at 998.

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