Petitioner: Dr. J. B. O'Connor
Respondent: Kenneth Donaldson
Petitioner's Claim: That O'Connor, representing the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, had violated Donaldson's constitutional rights by keeping him in custody for a supposed mental illness against his will for nearly fifteen years.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Raymond W. Gearney
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Bruce J. Ennis, Jr.
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: June 26, 1975
Decision: Ruled that Donaldson possessed certain constitutional rights which had been violated, and that he could gather damages from those individuals who had violated his rights.
Significance: The decision affirmed that mentally ill persons have constitutional rights which must be protected. This recognition paved the way for people with mental illness to live in their communities rather than institutions.
Society has often isolated and confined persons with mental illness. Likewise, the U.S. mental health system has a long history of unequal treatment of mentally ill individuals. Occupying an inferior status in U.S. culture due to personal characteristics beyond their control, they have commonly been politically powerless, unable to pursue legal paths to establish their own rights. Many persons with mental illness had been subjected to a system which often warehoused them in state mental institutions for years, frequently offering no psychiatric therapy. Non-dangerous persons were likely to be housed with the dangerous in overcrowded conditions. Many were committed (ordered confinement for a mentally ill or incompetent person) to institutions against their will for an indefinite (no specific end) time period and denied basic constitutional civil rights (rights given and defined by laws). An early advocate (one who defends or argues for a cause for another person) for the rights of the mentally ill, Bruce Ennis, Jr., commented in 1973 in "The Legal Rights of the Mentally Handicapped" that mentally-ill individuals were "our country's most profoundly victimized [severely cheated] minorities."
During the 1960s and 1970s many minority groups began to fight for their civil rights. Black Americans, women, and gays and lesbians all worked to halt the discrimination they had faced daily. In response, Congress passed America's most significant law to ban discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Within this social activist period, advocates for the mentally ill and those mentally-ill persons who were able began to challenge the mental health...