A superior court judge did not err when he ordered a Cochise County woman to undergo involuntary treatment last year after she stopped taking prescribed medication for her mental illness, according to a recent decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Judge John Kelliher Jr. ordered the woman, identified only as J.S., committed for treatment in October 2018 based on a petition argued by the Cochise County Attorney’s Office. The court of appeals affirmed Kelliher’s order, noting there was “ample evidence” to support the ruling despite opposition by J.S.’s court-appointed attorneys.
Kelliher’s authority to force J.S. to undergo treatment is found in Title 36 of the Arizona Revised Statutes. Because such decisions deprive citizens like J.S. of their liberty, state law requires a superior court judge to determine that J.S. needed treatment as the result of mental disorder and that she was “a danger to self or to others or has a persistent or acute disability or a grave disability.”
The Title 36 petition involving J.S. was one of 132 filed in Cochise County in 2018. Not all resulted in involuntary commitment, but it’s difficult for the public to know if such cases are handled properly because hearings are conducted in closed courtrooms and most case documents are restricted.
Key details of J.S.’s case only became public due to an appeal filed on her behalf which sought to invalidate Kelliher’s order. Those details show J.S. was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had agreed to voluntary admission last summer at Canyon Vista Medical Center in Sierra Vista for mental health treatment.
J.S. later balked at taking her prescribed medication, prompting concerns about her welfare. The civil division of the county attorney’s office then served as attorney of record for a Title 36 petition to compel treatment.
State law mandated two doctors examine J.S. and discuss with her the “advantages, disadvantages, and alternatives” of treatment options. A due process evidentiary hearing was then held by Kelliher to determine if there was “clear and convincing evidence” showing J.S. was unwilling or unable to agree to voluntary treatment.
The first psychiatrist testified J.S. was “consistently and acutely disabled” due to bipolar disorder and was “incapable of understanding” the discussion about treatment. The second psychiatrist, who diagnosed J.S. as schizophrenic, testified his effort to discuss treatment with J.S. was hampered by her “very poor” grasp of her need for medication or psychiatric care.
Kelliher granted the petition to compel involuntary treatment over the objection of J.S.’s counsel. An appeal was then filed based on myriad causes, including alleged deficiencies in the psychiatrists’ required discussions with J.S.
However, the court of appeals found Kelliher’s ruling was neither erroneous nor unsupported. The decision also noted the medical professionals sufficiently addressed the difficulty they encountered when trying to discuss treatment options with J.S.