Parham v. J. R. 442 U.S. 584 (1979)

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PARHAM v. J. R. 442 U.S. 584 (1979)

The notion of "voluntary" civil commitment of mental patients takes on a special meaning when the patients are children: under a typical state's law they can be committed by the joint decision of their parents and mental hospital authorities. This case, a class action on behalf of all children detained in Georgia mental hospitals, was brought in order to establish a child's procedural due process right to an adversary hearing before being so committed. Although the lower federal court agreed with the plaintiff's theory, the Supreme Court reversed in an opinion by Chief Justice warren e. burger.

The Court was unanimous in rejecting the broadest due process claim in behalf of the children. There were constitutionally protected "liberty" interests at stake in a commitment, both the freedom from bodily restraint and the freedom from being falsely labeled as mentally ill. However, applying the interest-balancing calculus suggested in mathews v. eldridge (1976), the Court concluded that a child's due process rights did not extend to an adversary precommitment hearing. The majority concluded that due process required no more than informal "medical" inquiries, once near the time of commitment and periodically thereafter, by a "neutral fact-finder" who would determine whether the standards for commitment were satisfied. There need be no adversary proceeding, but this neutral decision maker should interview the child.

The Court's opinion emphasized the importance of maintaining parents' traditional role in decision making for their children. (See children ' srights.) Although some parents might abuse their authority, the law had historically "recognized that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children." On the surface, J. R. is a "family autonomy" decision. Yet, as Robert Burt has shown, the Court's solicitude for parental authority was expressed in the context of parental decisions validated by state officials. Other decisions suggest that the Court's primary deference runs not to parents but to "state-employed behavioral professionals."

justice william j. brennan, for three partially dissenting Justices, agreed that pre-confinement hearings were not constitutionally required in all cases where parents sought to have their children committed, but he argued that due process did require at least one postadmission hearing. The informal inquiries approved by the Court did not meet this standard.

Kenneth L. Karst

(see also: Mental Illness and the Constitution.)


Burt, Robert A. 1979 The Constitution of the Family. Supreme Court Review 1979:329–395.