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SCOW to review personal jurisdiction and default judgments in Chapter 51 cases

Waukesha County v. S.L.L., 2017AP1468, petition for review of memorandum opinion granted 8/15/18; case activity

Issues (from court of appeals opinion):

Whether the circuit court has personal jurisdiction to recommit a person under Chapter 51 when the County concedes that it has been unable to serve her with the petition for recommitment?

Whether a circuit court has authority to enter a default judgment against the subject of a Chapter 51 petition for recommitment?

Whether “examining” physician reports recommending involuntary commitment and medication prepared physicians who never actually examined the subject are sufficient to support a Chapter 51 commitment?

As explained in our prior post, the court of appeals dismissed this appeal on mootness grounds.  The decision to grant review suggests that at least 3 justices either disagree with that assessment and/or view these issues as  important and capable of repetition and evading review.  Lawyers handling Chapter 51 appeals know all to well that it is impossible to get court of appeals decision before a 6-month initial commitment or even a 1-year extension of commitment expires. So the instinct to look for ways to dismiss these appeals as moot renders Chapter 51 commitments unappealable. Fortunately, SCOW appears ready to take a hard look at that problem. Mootness will be an issue in this case, and it is an issue in Portage County v. J.W.K, which is also pending in SCOW.

There are no published cases on the personal jurisdiction and default judgment issues raised by this appeal. These problems arise most often with those mentally ill people who are homeless and transient. Counties can lose contact with them once they are released from a hospital and return to the community. So can they recommit them in absentia? Waukesha County seems to think so.

As for the third issue, it is hard to understand how a doctor can opine that a person is mentally, ill, dangerous, a proper subject for treatment and in need of commitment and involuntary medication if he has never met or examined the patient. The court of appeals has addressed this  subject in a Chapter 54.  Walworth County v. Therese B., 2003 WI App 223, ¶13, 267 Wis. 2d 310, 671 N.W.2d 377 (Under Chapter 54, due process requires independent evaluation of subject not regurgitation of prior doctors’ reports). Hopefully, SCOW will extend this reasoning to the Chapter 51 setting. J.W.K. raises a similar but not identical issue.

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