Victory in Wisconsin Supreme Court Case

We received some good news from the Wisconsin Supreme Court when it decided Sauk County v. S.A.M., a case that Elizabeth Rich argued before the Court on February 28. In a 4-3 decision on June 23, 2022, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ dismissal of S.A.M.’s appeal of his involuntary commitment as moot.

For decades, Wisconsin appellate courts have dismissed most appeals from expired involuntary commitment orders as moot. That means that many people were denied their constitutional and statutory right to appeal orders committing them to government custody and medicating them against their will. The Court now holds that such appeals are not moot because they carry collateral consequences–gun bans and financial liability for the cost of “care”–that persist beyond the expiration of the commitment.

The decision was a great victory on the mootness issue; however, the Court rejected S.A.M.’s argument that his recommitment should be vacated on due process and sufficiency of the evidence grounds.

In Wisconsin, in order to commit a person involuntarily, the County must prove that the person is (i) mentally ill; (ii) treatable; and (iii) dangerous. There are five standards of dangerousness. S.A.M. had argued that due process requires that the County give him notice of which of the five standards of dangerousness it is alleging apply to him. Without that notice, preparation of a defense is very difficult. Defense counsel needs to develop a strategy, select defense witnesses, and cross examine the County’s witnesses, all with the objective of disproving dangerous.

The Court construed this argument to be that S.A.M.’s argument rested solely on another case, Langlade County v. D.J.W. That case was decided after S.A.M.’s hearing, so it did not apply. The silver lining here is that the Court did not foreclose the argument that a person undergoing recommitment has a due process right to notice of the dangerousness standard that the County is proceeding under. We will continue the fight on that issue.

The Court also rejected S.A.M.’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. In the past, before his commitment, S.A.M. had threatened self-harm (while drinking to excess) and failed to take his medications. There had been no significant issues during his commitment, but a doctor testified that “past actions are the best indicators of future actions,” and the Court found this good enough. We disagree. We will continue to challenge commitments based on thin evidence such as this.

As we have written previously, Wisconsin commits more people to involuntary commitment and forced drugging per capita than any state in the nation. There are many reasons for this, but the State’s penchant for allowing commitments based on flimsy evidence, as in S.A.M.’s case, is certainly one of them.

Bruce Vielmetti of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote an excellent article about the case, which you can find here:

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