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Wisconsin Supreme Court declines to decide case involving a minor’s right to refuse medical treatment

Dane County v. Sheila W., 2013 WI 63 (per curiam), affirming court of appeals summary disposition; case activity

The supreme court dismisses as moot a case presenting the questions of whether Wisconsin recognizes the “mature minor” doctrine, which permits a minor to give or refuse consent to medical treatment after a finding that she is sufficiently mature and competent to make the treatment decision, and whether a minor has a due process right to refuse medical treatment.

Sheila W. has aplastic anemia. Her doctors concluded she would die from the disease if she did not receive blood transfusions. Sheila, a Jehovah’s Witness, is opposed to transfusions on religious grounds. Her parents, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, supported her decision and refused to consent to transfusions. Relying on § 48.13(10) the County filed a CHIPS petition and a petition for temporary physical custody so the transfusions could be administered despite the lack of consent. Instead of granting those petitions, the circuit court sua sponte appointed a temporary guardian under § 54.50. The guardian consented to treatment and Sheila received transfusions. The guardianship order expired during Sheila’s, so the court of appeals dismissed the case as moot. The supreme court accepted review, but agrees the case should be dismissed as moot.

The court has addressed moot issues when they are of “great public importance” or when “the question is capable and likely of repetition and yet evades appellate review. . . .” State ex rel. Angela M.W. v. Kruzicki, 209 Wis. 2d 112, 120 n.6, 561 N.W.2d 729 (1997). The court acknowledges this case “undoubtedly presents issues of great public importance” and that orders appointing temporary guardians for the purpose of determining whether to consent to life-saving medical care are capable and likely of repetition and yet will evade appellate review. (¶7). Nonetheless:

¶8   In this instance, we deem it unwise to decide such substantial social policy issues with far-ranging implications based on a singular fact situation in a case that is moot. In Eberhardy v. Circuit Court for Wood Cnty., 102 Wis. 2d 539, 307 N.W.2d 881 (1981), this court was faced with a similar dilemma of whether to yield initially to the legislature on a social policy issue. In that case the guardians of a mentally-impaired adult daughter sought court approval for her surgical sterilization. Id. at 541-42. The court concluded that because of the complexities of the public policy considerations involved, opportunity should be given to the legislature to conduct hearings and undertake the necessary fact-finding studies that would result in measured public policy along with statutory guidelines. Id. at 542. The court explained:

 The legislature is far better able, by the hearing process, to consider a broad range of possible fact situations. It can marshal informed persons to give an in-depth study to the entire problem and can secure the advice of experts . . . to explore the ramifications of the adoption of a general public policy . . . .

Id. at 570-71.

Justice Prosser concurs (¶¶16-39), setting out in greater detail the issues raised by the “mature minor” doctrine, how it has been handled in other jurisdictions, and the related issues the court recently addressed in State v. Neumann, 2013 WI 58, ¶103-11, which found a parent has a legal duty to provide medical care for a child. Justices Gableman, Roggensack, and Ziegler dissent, arguing the issues clearly meet the exceptions to the mootness rule (¶¶49-51) and that “the Sheila W.’s of this state may have to wait a long time before the legislators on white horses arrive.” (¶51). In the meantime, the circuit courts will have to adjudicate these cases without any guidance from the supreme court. (¶52).

An issue that probably doesn’t arise very frequently, but interesting and difficult when it does, with compelling policy arguments on both sides of the question. If you are one of the few fated to handle a case with this issue, Justice Prosser’s concurrence will give you a starting point for understanding the mature minor doctrine (though not the due process claim, which is mentioned by the court only in passing).

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