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Video Hearings Challenged In Mental Health Cases

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Public defenders this week asked the Florida Supreme Court to at least temporarily block judges in Lee County from holding videoconference hearings in cases about whether mentally ill people should be involuntarily committed to treatment facilities.
The dispute stems from a decision early this year for a Lee County judge and a magistrate to hold what are known as "Baker Act" hearings through videoconference technology, rather than appearing in person at mental-health facilities. Public defenders representing 15 people with mental illnesses filed petitions challenging the practice, but the 2nd District Court of Appeal in September allowed the remote hearings to continue.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue, and justices scheduled arguments for Feb. 7. But in filings Tuesday, the petitioners requested that the Supreme Court issue a stay that would at least temporarily block the videoconference hearings until the case is resolved.

In part, the filings contended that mentally ill people are being treated differently than parties in other types of legal cases, where in-person hearings and trials are held.

The petitions were filed against the state, and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office had not filed arguments in the Supreme Court as of Wednesdaymorning.

But in the September ruling, a majority of the three-judge panel at the 2nd District Court of Appeal said nothing bars Lee County judges from holding videoconference hearings in Baker Act cases — though the panel expressed reservations about the practice.

The Baker Act sets up a process for determining whether people should be involuntarily committed for mental-health treatment. Part of that process involves judges or magistrates holding hearings to determine whether people meet criteria for being placed in mental-health facilities.