The Clinton Mental Health Case-a Civil Procedure Lesson

JurisdictionColorado,United States
CitationVol. 19 No. 9 Pg. 1809
Publication year1990
19 Colo.Law. 1809
Colorado Lawyer

1990, September, Pg. 1809. The Clinton Mental Health Case-A Civil Procedure Lesson


Vol. 19, No. 9, Pg. 1809

The Clinton Mental Health Case---A Civil Procedure Lesson

by Philip Robert James

Until recently, Colorado attorneys may not have used the phrase, "It's jurisdictional," in exactly the right way. However, the Colorado Supreme Court has eliminated any uncertainty regarding that phrase. In People in the Interest of Clinton(fn1) and People in the Interest of Lynch(fn2) the Supreme Court provided a civil procedure lesson by overruling two Colorado Court of Appeals mental health cases. The court explained that "jurisdiction" is a narrow concept and is not to be confused with "due process."

This article discusses the effect these decisions will have on mental health cases in Colorado. It also discusses jurisdictional defenses that remain after Clinton and describes due process violations that can cause a mental health case to be dismissed by the court.

The Clinton and Lynch Cases

In October 1988, the Supreme Court decision in Clinton marked the end of an eventful year for the mental health defense bar. The Court of Appeals decision in Clinton(fn3) had allowed the defense to require that the trial court dismiss a mental health certification and free a mental health respondent from the certifying hospital upon proof of procedural errors by the certifying doctor, the hospital or even the court. The Court of Appeals had relied on a line of cases beginning with Barber v. People.(fn4) Barber appeared to say that all procedural errors were jurisdictional and that upon proof of such a procedural error, the trial court's jurisdiction ended:

There must be a strict compliance with the provisions of such a statute, which are mandatory, and in the absence of such compliance the court has no jurisdiction to act.(fn5)

In Clinton, an attorney had not been appointed for the respondent, as required by law,(fn6) for eight days (four business days). The trial court had agreed that such a time was not "forthwith" as required by statute, but had refused to dismiss the case because the request had not been timely raised and no prejudice had been shown. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

As an example of the result of the Court of Appeals decision, during late 1988 and early 1989, Denver metro courts regularly dismissed certifications because the certification papers from the hospital did not get to the court within forty-eight hours as required by statute. Many other technical defenses were available to the creative mental health defense counsel,(fn7) but analyses of when these defenses were valid were not clear.

The Supreme Court ended that eventful year by reversing the Court of Appeals and reaffirming the decision of the Pueblo District Court. The passage in Barber which seemed to create this broad rule of dismissal, the Supreme Court said, "was not necessary to the disposition of the issues presented in Barber and should be recognized as dictum without precedential effect."(fn8) The Supreme Court carefully distinguished those errors which prevent subject matter jurisdiction from reaching the trial court, such as notice errors, process errors or statutory limits on the trial court's jurisdiction, from errors which only suggest due process concerns. While these latter errors may require dismissal if they substantially and adversely affect a respondent's due process rights, they do not mandate dismissal.

The Lynch decision, citing Clinton, makes the distinction clearer:

Under Clinton, the proper analysis of cases involving deviations from the statutory requirements governing mental health certification proceedings involves two sets of inquiries: (1) whether the defect involves "notice or process, or failure to satisfy the statutory (residence) requirements limiting the court's jurisdiction," . . . or, if a non-jurisdictional deviation is involved, whether the defect concerns a failure to comply with essential statutory provisions grave enough to "undermine confidence in the fairness and outcome of the certification proceedings."(fn9)

Though some jurisdictional defenses still exist after Clinton and Lynch, they


are difficult to prove or are not useful to the mental health defense counsel. Moreover, it is likely the Supreme Court's distinction in Clinton and Lynch will limit substantially the mental health defense counsel's chance for a due process dismissal because such a dismissal...

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