High court allows looser rules for committing retarded to institutions

June 25, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Dividing emotionally over the plight of the mentally retarded put away in state institutions, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that government officials may commit a retarded person for weaker reasons than it would take for an insane individual.

The ruling upheld a two-level rule now in use in many states providing less constitutional protection in involuntary commitment cases for the mentally retarded than for those who are mentally ill.

The majority said the retarded may be treated differently because their condition is easier to diagnose than mental illness and they are subjected to less intrusive treatment when they are put in a state institution. The retarded usually get education and training to allow them to cope with life, while the mentally ill "are subjected to medical and psychiatric treatment which may involve intrusive inquiries into the patient's innermost thoughts."

The four dissenting justices, however, said that it is a common practice for institutions for the retarded to treat them with the same kind of anti-psychotic drugs used for the mentally ill and to use the same behavior-altering therapy.

Going back to ancient English law, the majority said that it has long been routine to have differences in the legal status of the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, reflecting "a common-sense distinction" between the two conditions.

But the dissenters scolded the majority for relying on long-past history when the law treated the retarded as "idiots" and the mentally ill as "lunatics."

Although the decision specifically upheld only a Kentucky law, the court said that a majority of states also have separate laws for commitment procedures. Maryland has separate laws, but those use the same level of proof to justify forced institutionalization for the retarded and the mentally ill.

Under the Kentucky law, the retarded may be put in an institution if there is "clear and convincing evidence" of retardation -- a lower level of proof. But the mentally ill may be committed only on proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" of that illness -- the same tough standard used for guilt in criminal cases.

In Maryland, commitment of either the retarded or the mentally ill depends upon proof of a "clear and convincing" need for treatment.

The new decision, besides upholding Kentucky's two-level approach, upheld by a separate 6-3 vote another clause in the Kentucky law allowing the parents or guardian of a mentally retarded person to take a direct part in trying to have that individual sent to a home for the retarded, and to appeal if such an order is denied at the first level.

Accused's right to trial

The court, in a second ruling yesterday dealing with an issue of mental capacity, ruled 7-2 that judges may allow a person accused of crime to forfeit constitutional rights -- the right to plead innocent, the right to a trial and the right to a lawyer -- if that individual satisfies the usual measure for mental competence.

The court rejected the argument of a Nevada death row inmate that having the mental capacity to stand trial should not be considered enough when the issue is a surrender of constitutional rights.

To stand trial, an individual claiming to be mentally defective need only be shown to be able to understand what is going on in the courtroom and to aid the defense lawyer. A lower court said that more was at stake when such an individual expressed a desire to plead guilty and do without a lawyer.

Prosecutors' speech

By unanimous vote, the court refused to give prosecutors total immunity to civil rights damage claims if they hold a news conference and say something false about an individual who has been arrested or charged with a crime.

In a ruling that raises legal risks for prosecutors engaging in the routine practice of announcing charges to the press, the court said that out-of-court statements to the press are not a part of the criminal law process, and thus prosecutors do not enjoy legal immunity if such statements violate someone's rights.

The ruling came in a celebrated murder case from Illinois, involving a Naperville man, Stephen Buckley, who was held in jail for three years on charges of killing an 11-year-old girl.

Mr. Buckley was never tried for that crime, the charges ultimately were dropped, and someone else confessed to the murder. After being released, Mr. Buckley sued everyone involved in the investigation and prosecution of the case for $8 million each, claiming violations of his civil rights.

Besides claiming that prosecutors gave out false statements about him at a press conference, he also charged that they falsified evidence linking him to the girl's murder. The prosecutors sought to block both claims, arguing that they were immune because their actions were part of the prosecution effort.

Although the court denied the immunity for the press conference remarks by a 9-0 vote, it split 5-4 in rejecting the immunity claim for the alleged fabrication of evidence.

Youth death sentences

The court divided 5-4 in ruling that judges in murder cases do not have to take special steps to make sure that jurors considering a death

sentence take into account the youth of the murderer at the time of the crime.

Upholding the death sentence of a Snyder, Texas, man -- Dorsie Lee Johnson -- for murdering a convenience store clerk in 1986, the court said that the Constitution does not require a specific instruction to call the jurors' attention to youthful age. Johnson was 19 at the time of the murder.

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