AuthorHolberg, Ross K.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND: A DOCTRINE FROZEN IN 1997 A. THE COMMITMENTS OF WOODRUFF AND WOODRASKA B. THE CONTINUING WOODRUFF PROBLEM C. THE DEATH OF WOODRUFF BY A THOUSAND CUTS III. THE MOOTNESS FRAMEWORK FOR MENTAL HEALTH APPEALS IN STATE COURTS A. ORIGINS: FEDERAL MOOTNESS DOCTRINE B. STATE MOOTNESS DOCTRINES C. THE PUBLIC INTEREST EXCEPTION D. THE "CAPABLE OF REPETITION, YET EVADING REVIEW" EXCEPTION COMPARED E. COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES F. INVOLUNTARY COMMITMENT: THE INTERSECTION OF LIBERTY AND JUSTICIABILITY IV. RECONCILING WOODRUFF WITH THE MOOTNESS FRAMEWORK A. COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES B. ERRORS IN DEFINING THE MOOTNESS EXCEPTIONS C. CONSEQUENCES OF OVER-EXTENDING THE MOOTNESS BAR D. DUE PROCESS CONCERNS E. MOOTNESS DOCTRINE IN SOUTH DAKOTA V. AFTER WOODRUFF VI. CONCLUSION In 1997, the South Dakota Supreme Court decided Matter of Woodruff, a short opinion that dismissed as moot two appeals of involuntary' mental health commitments. The court declined to reach the merits, reasoning that the appellants' release from incarceration in the state hospital rendered their appeals moot. Since then, the South Dakota Supreme Court has published no opinion deciding an appeal of an involuntary commitment order. Practitioners confirm this is because they know their clients' cases will be dismissed after their release consistent with Woodruff. Two alarming phenomena follow: first, a vulnerable population has no access to judicial review of stigmatizing orders that result in the loss of legal rights; and second, the State of South Dakota has no judicial elaboration of its involuntary commitment laws. This lack of precedent does not just make South Dakota an outlier; it is a sign of a constitutionally infirm process. While other courts have been highly critical of Woodruff, it has remained deeply entrenched, due to norms descended from its errant mootness doctrine. The court's adjudicative avoidance is unacceptable in light of the "massive curtailment of liberty" the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges an involuntary commitment produces, as well as the courts ' duty to adjudicate. In fairness, justiciability doctrines often obscure this duty by propounding an imperative to judicial restraint. In this article, I propose a framework to supplant Woodruff. By integrating the justiciability doctrines that allow other states to develop mental health jurisprudence, this framework maintains a preference for access to the courts, by recognizing the distinctions between the limited jurisdiction of the federal judiciary and the plenary jurisdiction of state courts. The two main methods courts rely on to adjudicate mental health commitment appeals are the collateral consequences rule of Sibron v. New York and the public interest exception to the mootness bar. Starting from the normative ground that an appeal of an involuntary commitment order is inherently a matter of significant public importance, this framework aligns with the views of scholars and jurists who prioritize the duty to adjudicate. Judicial review is regarded here as essential. This justiciability framework is thus designed to allow for elaboration of mental health statutes, individual access to the courts, and oversight of regional boards of mental illness.


    The last time the South Dakota Supreme Court decided a direct appeal from an involuntary mental health commitment was 1997, in the case of Matter of Woodruff. (1) The Court did not decide Woodruff on the merits, however. It decided only that the issues before the Court were moot, because the appellants were no longer under their ninety-day involuntary commitment orders. (2) South Dakota circuit courts have since interpreted Woodruff to stand for the proposition that an appeal from an involuntary commitment cannot be decided once the committed person is no longer confined. (3) State and federal courts, including South Dakota's own supreme court, have since cast doubt on the validity of Woodruff, finding it was wrongly decided on a variety of grounds. (4) Yet Woodruff is the only in-state case South Dakota courts apply to involuntary commitment appeals. Time and experience show it to be a case of "bad law" perpetuated as controlling law.

    Woodruff s holding that the two particular appeals were moot, on two narrow sets of facts, has led to a perverse consequence: an involuntarily committed person has a statutory right to judicial review, but can never exercise that right, because their appeal will almost certainly be dismissed as moot. (5) That person is left with no recourse to the courts. (6) And because South Dakota courts refrain from deciding appeals from boards of mental illness, South Dakota is among the very slim minority of states with no substantive case law in the area of involuntary mental health commitment. (7) Without judicial oversight, county boards of mental illness risk becoming fiefdoms, and the persons over whom they wield power have no recourse at law. (8) This harms individuals, and denigrates the rule of law. The members of these boards suffer. They have a difficult, often heartbreaking, job to do, with no guidance other than the plain text of the statute and the arguments of counsel on how to conduct hearings and decide petitions. (9) This is a dire state of affairs for an area of law concerned with the incarceration of individuals as a consequence of having a serious medical condition. (10)

    In Part II, I provide a background on Woodruff, including how the case came before the South Dakota Supreme Court and what the court held. (11) Woodruff is, in practice, read very broadly to essentially bar all appeals of commitment orders. While the case is unusually broad, it has been extended to bar appeals in situations such as where an appeal brings due process challenges. Part II concludes with a discussion of how courts have interpreted Woodruff in and out of South Dakota, and what those courts' critiques mean for Woodruffs continuing viability. State and federal courts have not been receptive to Woodruffs claim that involuntary commitments do not entail collateral consequences. (12) The Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit both firmly rejected this position and Woodruff s reasoning. (13) And in a line of cases starting in 2017 with Larson v. Krebs, the South Dakota Supreme Court began to recognize fundamental errors in Woodruffs articulation of the exceptions to the mootness doctrine. (14) These exceptions allow committed persons to access the courts and aid in the development of case law in the area of mental health. (15) The two exceptions to the mootness doctrine recognized in South Dakota--the "capable of repetition, yet evading review" exception and the public interest exception--were merged in Woodruff, creating an insurmountable hurdle to accessing judicial review. (16) The South Dakota Supreme Court has never applied this version of the mootness doctrine in other areas of law, and its recent cases discussing Woodruff are perhaps a recognition of this substantive problem. (17)

    In Part III, I discuss the established framework for how state courts develop bodies of law governing involuntary commitments. (18) This includes the analytical approaches to determining when a mental health appeal is moot and, when moot, whether to decide a case on the merits. A large contingent of state appellate courts decide mental health appeals to provide guidance for future decision-makers, under the public interest exception to the mootness bar. (19) Courts also decide involuntary commitment appeals under the "capable of repetition, yet evading review" exception, which is available in both state and federal court. (20) This exception applies to provide the committed person access to judicial review, even when resolving the appeal may not serve future litigants other than the appellant. (21)

    Another major factor is whether a state's courts presume collateral consequences result from a commitment, or, if they do not, how willing that state's courts are to find collateral consequences in specific cases. (22) When there are collateral consequences from a decision, that case is not moot; incarceration is just one injury the appeal serves to address, among others, such as stigma and the loss of civil rights. (23) To put the state approaches to mootness in context, I first address federal mootness doctrine--not because it is superior or controlling of state law, but because it has an outsize influence on most states' stances on deciding "moot" questions and, in turn, is the source of much confusion regarding justiciability in state court. (24)

    Mental health commitment statutes can be very complex. Yet commitment hearings are often heard either by lay tribunals, or by informal courts in hospitals. (25) Trial courts develop idiosyncratic practices that require feedback and adjustment from appellate courts suited to the detached analysis and development of law. Mental health tribunals are especially susceptible to relying on habits that depart from the letter or spirit of the law. The more detached from higher courts they are, the more their regular practices are inherently insulated from review and correction. Proceedings are generally not open to the public, and the court record may, as in South Dakota, be sealed from public view. It is therefore especially important these tribunals be subject to regular judicial review, particularly where a party feels aggrieved, as the legal community and public will tend to have no concept of what truly happens in these closed-door proceedings.

    Part IV explains how Woodruff fits into the mootness framework. (26) This includes those ways Woodruff is inconsistent with accepted mootness doctrine, as the South Dakota Supreme Court has begun to recognize. (27) I will address criticisms courts have levied at the decision, which challenge its continuing validity, and will explain the ways in which Woodruff can and cannot be...

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