No right to self representation in civil commitment case, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | October 18, 2023

A person challenging involuntary commitment for mental illness does not have a right to self representation in state court proceedings, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a decision handed down Oc. 13.

An Iowa prison inmate, identified as V.H. in these proceedings and who is serving a criminal sentence for assault and harassment, was incarcerated at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. V.H. was found by a Johnson County District Court judicial hospital referee to be seriously mentally impaired. The referee ordered V.H.’s involuntary commitment within the Coralville medical center.

V.H. appealed the involuntary commitment order to Johnson County District Court, arguing he was not mentally ill and did not need medication, and he asked to represent himself in his case. The district court denied both motions, which the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in a unanimous decision written by Justice Thomas Waterman.

In affirming the district court’s conclusion on V.H.’s continued civil commitment, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the district court correctly affirmed the referee’s findings regarding V.H.’s mental illness dangerousness to himself or others based on V.H.’s history of headbanging that resulted injuries and his placement on suicide watch at least eight times.

The Court also rejected V.H.’s argument that he had a right under the Iowa and federal constitutions to represent himself in the civil commitment proceedings. First, the Court said V.H. failed to preserve the question under the Iowa Constitution because he raised it for the first time in his reply brief. Second, the Court held there is no right under the U.S. Constitution, either under the Sixth or 14th Amendments, to self representation in civil commitment proceedings.

While there is a recognized right to self representation in criminal cases, there is no such right in civil commitment proceedings, the Court said. Iowa Code Chapter 229, which governs hospitalization of persons with mental illness, states that a “respondent’s attorney shall represent the respondent at all stages of the proceedings,” and the Court placed emphasis on the word shall.

“V.H. asks us to extend, for the first time, the federal constitutional right to self-representation in criminal cases to this proceeding for his involuntary civil commitment under Iowa Code chapter 229,” Waterman wrote. “He, in effect, asks us to declare unconstitutional the legislature’s requirement that attorneys represent respondents in these proceedings. We decline to do so.”

The Sixth Amendment, which states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” applies only to criminal proceedings and the U.S. Supreme Court has never extended the right to civil commitment proceedings where state power is not exercised in a punitive sense, Waterman wrote.

The Court also rejected V.H.’s claim that he has a due-process right to self representation under the 14th Amendment, either under substantive or procedural due process principles. The Court stated that since V.H. lacks a fundamental right under the federal Constitution to represent himself in his Chapter 229 civil commitment proceeding, no fundamental right is implicated and the statutory requirement for representation by counsel need only “be rationally related to legitimate government interests.”

Waterman quoted from a Montana Supreme Court decision in which that court observed, “There is a very real risk that self-representation in civil commitment proceedings would increase the likelihood of an unfair or erroneous result rather than enhancing the fairness or accuracy of the proceeding.”





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