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Justices Reject Video Hearings In Baker Act Cases

Florida Supreme Court
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Pointing to the needs of “vulnerable citizens,” the Florida Supreme Courton Thursday rejected judges holding videoconference hearings in cases about whether mentally ill people should be involuntarily committed to treatment facilities.
The unanimous ruling came in a challenge to a move last year in Lee County to begin holding the so-called “Baker Act” hearings remotely, rather than through judges or magistrates appearing in person at mental-health facilities. Public defenders filed a series of challenges on behalf of people with mental illnesses.

“Individuals subject to Baker Act commitment proceedings are individuals who likely have a serious mental illness, and they are among the state's most vulnerable citizens,” said the Supreme Court's main opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente. “The language in the Baker Act reflects the Legislature's acknowledgment that these individuals are entitled to heightened consideration regarding the manner in which the hearing will be conducted. Such heightened consideration rightfully includes the physical presence of judicial officers in the hearing room.”

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Alan Lawson fully signed on to Pariente's opinion. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polson agreed with the result but cited a court rule that they said prevents remote testimony in such hearings without consent of all the parties.

The Supreme Court foreshadowed Thursday's opinion in February, when it issued a stay to temporarily block the remote Lee County hearings. That stay was issued hours after the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case and asked repeated questions about the legal basis for the videoconferences.

But Thursday's opinion overturned a ruling last year by the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which found that nothing barred the use of remote hearings in Baker Act cases.

The issue stemmed from Lee County, but judges in other areas also have looked at the videoconferencing idea. For example, during the February hearing, Jeffrey Colbath, chief judge of Palm Beach County's 15th Judicial Circuit, said his circuit was moving toward using remote hearings and that the issue involved “management of resources.” He pointed, in part, to the Legislature not providing money to add judges and the fact that sprawling Palm Beach County had seven mental-health facilities.

But public defenders argued remote hearings can particularly pose problems for mentally ill people who, because of their conditions, might have difficulty taking part in proceedings through television screens.

In her opinion, Pariente wrote that the Supreme Court in 1999 approved a rule that allowed a pilot program for remote hearings in juvenile-detention cases. But the court scrapped the rule two years later, concluding that “mandating that children attend detention hearings conducted through an audio-visual device steers us towards a sterile environment of T.V. chamber justice, and away from a system where children are aptly treated as society's most precious resource.”

Pariente said remote hearings in Baker Act cases are a due-process issue and that convenience “of the judicial officer is insufficient to justify the violation of an individual's constitutional rights.”

“Individuals subject to Baker Act commitment hearings are entitled to the strict enforcement of their fundamental due process rights,” she wrote. “These rights include: the right to an attorney, the right to testify, present evidence, and confront and cross examine witnesses, and the right to be present at the commitment hearing. Courts must be especially careful to protect those due process rights when dealing with a vulnerable segment of the population and making a decision that ultimately results in a `massive curtailment of liberty.’”