Thursday, September 1, 2005
Appeals Court: No Self-Representation Right in Conservatorship Action
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The prospective conservatee has no right to represent himself in conservatorship proceedings, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Commitment proceedings under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act are not “sufficiently akin” to criminal prosecutions for the make the constitutional right to self-representation applicable, Justice M. Kathleen Butz explained for the court. Nor, Butz said, is there a statutory right to self-representation embodied in the law itself, which is codified beginning at Sec. 5000 of the Welfare and Institutions Code.
The justice said San Joaquin Superior Court Judge William J. Murray properly rejected a psychiatric patient’s bid to take over as his own lawyer on the day set for a jury trial to determine whether he was gravely disabled and required a conservator. The man, identified in the appellate opinion only as Joel E., allegedly had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, was refusing medical treatment, and was not eating properly.
Joel E. told Murray he had heard God telling him that he had “a commission in life” to “prove that there’s nothing to psychiatry.” He explained to the judge that he believed he had a duty to “the people of California,Öand not just the people going through this conservatorship stuff, but the whole people of California” to fulfill this commission by taking on the task of acting as his own attorney in the proceedings.
When Murray asked Joel E. directly whether he wanted to fire his court-appointed attorney and represent himself, Joel E. replied in part:
“I tune into where people are at. I tune in. I don’t do wrong at this character assessment, because I feel him out and he’s not with me. There’s something he’s hiding and I know when they hide it. He moves around continuously and avoids me because he’s not willing for me to expose his inner self. And if he stays put, I can tune into where he’s at. I can tune into that heart.”
He also claimed his prior conservatorship proceedings had been “turned into a murder trial.”
Murray ruled that there was neither a constitutional right nor a statutory right to self-representation in conservatorship proceedings and that even if a statutory right existed, Joel T. was too disabled to exercise it.
Butz pointed out that other constitutional protections for criminal defendants, such as the exclusionary rule and the privilege against self-incrimination, have not been extended to civil commitment proceedings. She rejected the reliance of Joel E.’s appellate lawyers on Conservatorship of Roulet (1979) 23 Cal.3d 219 and Conservatorship of Margaret L. (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 675.
Roulet held that a unanimous jury verdict under a standard of reasonable doubt is required in conservatorship proceedings, and Margaret L. held that independent appellate review of the record, like that mandated in criminal cases under People v. Wende (1979) 25 Cal.3d 436 when appellate counsel finds no arguable issues to raise, is required in conservatorship cases.
Butz said the rationale supporting those rulings was that the rights at issue were essential to insure the accuracy of the results of the proceedings and protect individuals from being falsely confined.
“On the other hand,” the justice wrote, “when the rights at issue do not bear on the accuracy of the results, courts have not extended criminal procedural protections to civil commitment proceedings.”
Butz also noted that Roulet relied on the state, not the federal, constitution and that the issue decided in Margaret L. is currently before the state high court, which has agreed to review the Court of Appeals’ 2004 decision in Conservatorship of Ben C., 119 Cal. App. 4th 710.
Turning to the statutory question, Butz observed that Sec. 5365 requires judges to appoint an attorney to represent proposed conservatees.
“There is nothing in the language of section 5365 to suggest that a court has the option of not appointing counsel for the subject of a conservatorship petition based on grave disability or that such person has the option of declining counsel,” Butz declared. “Nor does any other statute within the chapter addressing this type of conservatorship proceeding suggest that attendant to the requirement to appoint counsel is a right to waive representation.”
Murray had discretion under the statute to permit Joel E. to act as his own lawyer, but had good reasons for declining to exercise that discretion, Butz said.
She said Joel E.’s comments during the hearing at which he asked to represent himself “warranted concern” about whether he possessed the “rational as well as factual understanding” of the proceedings required under In re Shawnn F. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 184 before self-representation should be permitted.
The case is Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Joel E., C046017.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company