WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has given mentally ill criminal defendants new constitutional protection against unwanted medication during trial and continued confinement once they regain their sanity.
The decisions in the unrelated cases were both based on the majority's interpretation of the Constitution's guarantee of due process of law. Both provoked dissenting opinions from the court's newest member, Justice Clarence Thomas.
In an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in one of the cases, a 7-2 majority ruled that a state cannot force a mentally ill defendant to accept anti-psychotic medication during trial without an "overriding justification." The court said the state must demonstrate that the treatment is both medically appropriate and, in light of "less intrusive alternatives," also "essential" for the defendant's own safety or the safety of others.
The decision overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of a Nevada man, David Riggins, who was given high doses of the drug Mellaril, over his objection, beginning months before his trial in 1988.
In the second case, a 5-4 majority invalidated a Louisiana law under which people found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity must remain in a mental institution, even if no longer insane, until they can prove they are no longer dangerous to themselves or others.
In an opinion by Justice Byron R. White, the court held that once such an inmate is no longer mentally ill, dangerousness alone is not a constitutionally adequate rationale for continued confinement.
Justice Thomas said that removing formerly insane inmates from mental institutions "may make eminent sense as a policy matter." But he said that "the Due Process Clause does not require the States to conform to the policy preference of federal judges."
In other rulings:
* The court rejected an appeal by a former Army sergeant in Maryland who accused superior officers of disciplining him because he wrote to his Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes about a military matter.
The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that the officers are immune from being sued.
William T. Murphy was a sergeant assigned to a military intelligence unit at Aberdeen Proving Ground when he resigned after being disciplined for writing the letter. He later sued his superior officers.
* The court agreed to decide whether states must refund the taxes they improperly imposed on federal pensions before a 1989 Supreme Court decision clarified the law on the subject. The In a case that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars to retired federal workers.
More than 200,000 federal retirees live in Virginia, more than in any other state, and Virginia will owe them as much as $440 million if it has to refund the taxes collected on their pension income since 1985.