What was Addington vs Texas (1979)?

Introduction

Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979), was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court that set the standard for involuntary commitment for treatment by raising the burden of proof required to commit persons for psychiatric treatment from the usual civil burden of proof of “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence”.

Background

Before Frank Addington was arrested on the misdemeanour charge of “assault threat” against his mother, Addington’s mother filed a petition with the court, in accordance with Texas law, requesting that Addington be indefinitely involuntarily committed to a state psychiatric hospital. Addington had a long history of mental and emotional problems and past psychiatric hospitalisations. The state trial court issued jury instructions that the decision be based on “clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence” that Addington was mentally ill and that hospitalisation was required for his own welfare and the welfare of others. The jury found that Addington was mentally ill and required hospitalisation. Thereupon the trial court ordered his indefinite commitment. He was indefinitely committed to Austin State Hospital.

However, Addington appealed to the Texas Court of Appeals, based on the argument the court should have used the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. The appeals court reversed, agreeing with Addington. The Texas Supreme Court then reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, reinstating the trial court’s orders. It concluded that the standard of proof of the preponderance of the evidence satisfied due process in a civil commitment proceeding.

Addington then appealed to the US Supreme Court on a writ of certiorari (in law, certiorari is a court process to seek judicial review of a lower court of government agency).

Opinion of the Court

The appeal was dismissed and certiorari granted; the lower court’s decision was vacated and remanded. The court said the issue of an individual’s interest in liberty is of such weight and gravity that a higher standard of proof is required than is normal in civil cases brought under state law. Because of the uncertainties of psychiatric diagnosis, the burden of proof does not need to be as high as “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, but should be a “clear and convincing” standard of proof as required by the Fourteenth Amendment in such a civil proceeding to commit an individual involuntarily for an indefinite period to a state psychiatric hospital.

Further, the opinion touched on the issue of an involuntary commitment as primarily medical in nature and needing the expertise of mental health experts.

Whether the individual is mentally ill and dangerous to either himself or others and is in need of confined therapy turns on the meaning of the facts which must be interpreted by expert psychiatrists and psychologists.

Subsequent Developments

The court raised the bar for committing someone against their will in a civil commitment proceeding. When the stakes are exceptionally high in civil matters, the burden of proof must be “clear and convincing evidence”. The case raised important issues regarding civil commitment by placing the burden of proof on the petitioner, that is the party seeking the involuntary commitment of a person.

The opinion also suggested that it was not necessarily for the trier of facts to draw the necessary conclusions without the expertise of psychiatrists and psychologists.

The Supreme Court also cited the Addington case in Santosky v. Kramer, which set a clear and convincing evidence standard in termination of parental rights cases.

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