Supreme Court: Summarily approved commitment orders not valid

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The Indiana Supreme Court has expressly disapproved of a Marion County judge’s practice of summarily approving civil commitment orders individually reviewed by the presiding commissioner, though the justices also noted that the fact that the defendants' commitment orders have expired makes their appeals moot.

In a Tuesday per curiam opinion, the justices granted transfer and consolidated the appeals in In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of T.W. v. St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center, Inc., et al.; In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of A.M. v. Community Health Network, Inc., 19S-MH-264. At issue in both cases were civil commitment orders signed by Marion County Commissioner Kelly M. Scanlan. Neither order was individually signed by Marion Superior Judge Steven Eichholtz, who instead approved the commitments by signing an order designated as a “non-case matter.”

T.W. was ordered to commitment after he stopped taking medication prescribed to treat schizophrenia, while A.M. was ordered to commitment for unspecific schizophrenia spectrum and another psychotic disorder. On appeal, both defendants argued their commitment orders were invalid because they lacked Eichholtz’s signature, but the Indiana Court of Appeals largely sidestepped that issue as either moot or waived.

However, Judge Elizabeth Tavitas relied on L.J. v. Health & Hosp. Corp., 113 N.E.3d 274 (Ind. Ct. App.), in a dissent in T.W. opining that “(a) litigant cannot waive a trial court judge’s exercise of statutory responsibility.”   

In its per curiam opinion, the Indiana Supreme Court initially agreed with the COA that T.W. and A.M.’s appeals were moot because the period at issue in their commitment orders had passed. Thus, the court did not reach the merits of arguments concerning sufficiency of the evidence or appellate waiver. However, it did write to “address an issue of great public importance.”  

“In Marion County, a probate commissioner may hear evidence and make reports to the court thereon, including ‘reports concerning the commissioner’s findings and conclusions regarding the proceedings,’” the court wrote, referencing Indiana Code section 33-33-49-16(a). “But all matters handled by a commissioner under this subsection ‘are under the final jurisdiction and decision of the judge of the probate division.’… With exceptions not applicable here, ‘a magistrate shall report findings in an evidentiary hearing, a trial, or a jury’s verdict to the court’ and ‘[t]he court shall enter the final order.’”

In A.M. and T.W.’s cases, Eichholtz signed an “Approval Order for Record of Judgments and Daily Orders” to approve the civil commitments. The “approval orders” were designated as “court business records” and didn’t cross-reference any specific mental health cases.

“Nor do they direct the clerk to enter the Approval Orders on the (chronological case summary) for the mental health cases or direct distribution to parties or their counsel,” the court continued. “And the Approval Orders are ambiguous in this context: they purport to adopt findings and recommendations of the ‘magistrate, commissioner and/or referee’ for matters heard on a particular day, yet the temporary commitment orders on their face, purport to be those of a ‘Judge,’ not a commissioner, magistrate, or referee.

“In short, the Approval Orders provide inadequate assurance that Judge Eichholtz was presented with (in writing), reviewed, and approved the temporary commitment orders in the cases of T.W. and A.M.”

However, because the cases are moot, the justices declined to remand them back to the trial court.

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