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Case Six -- Wayne B. v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Opinion No. 6300
by James B. Gottstein, Esq.

Involuntary Commitment and Forced Drugging petitions are within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court, but for expedience, in Anchorage at least, have been referred to the Probate Masters to hear the evidence and make recommendations.  Under Civil Rule 53(d)(1), as it existed at the time, the Master's Report was to be accompanied by a transcript and any other evidence presented to the Probate Master.   However, transcripts are never prepared and the Superior Court always or almost always "rubber stamps" the Master's Recommendations.  We argued the transcripts are required so the Superior Court has a basis for deciding whether to accept the Probate Master's Recommendations or not.  In the Wayne B. Decision, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with us, saying:

We take a strict view of the transcript filing requirement because, as we noted in Wetherhorn v. Alaska Psychiatric Institute, involuntary commitment for a mental disorder is a “massive curtailment of liberty.”  Given the nature of the liberty interest at stake, it was critical that the superior court have full knowledge of the evidence that was said to justify committing Wayne B. to a mental institution. . . .

Where no transcript is filed, but a judge actually listens to a recording of the full proceedings conducted by a master, the error in failing to comply with the transcript requirement should be considered cured. The adjudicative responsibilities of a judge can be fulfilled at least as well based on a recording of proceedings as from a transcript.  But there is no indication that this occurred in this case. (footnotes omitted)

Because the rule was being ignored in all of the cases referred to Masters, as a result of the Wayne B. decision, the rule was changed for other types of cases to only require the transcript or listening to the recording if a party objects to Master's recommendations.  They couldn't change the rule for involuntary commitment cases, however, because the Alaska Supreme Court implicitly ruled it was a constitutional requirement because of the "massive curtailment of liberty" involved.

A second issue in the case was that there was no evidence sufficient to support the Master's finding that WSB was gravely disabled and therefore subject to involuntary commitment, but the court declined to rule on this issue, saying it was moot and didn't consider it important enough to rule on it. 

Last modified 11/29/2009
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