The Florida Supreme Court could decide whether judges should be allowed to hold hearings by videoconference in cases involving the involuntary commitment of mentally ill people under the state’s Baker Act.
Kathleen Smith, the public defender in Southwest Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit, asked the Supreme Court last week to take up the issue in a Lee County dispute.
That dispute stems from a decision for a judge and a magistrate to no longer travel to receiving facilities to hold evidentiary hearings about whether patients should be involuntarily committed, according to a Sept. 28 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
The decision meant hearings would instead be held by videoconference.
Attorneys for patients filed a legal challenge, arguing that the hearings should be held in person instead of remotely. A panel of the appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, rejected the challenge, though the majority expressed reservations about the videoconferencing decision.
“In sum, while we question the wisdom of holding these hearings remotely, we conclude that the decision to preside over a Baker Act hearing remotely via videoconference equipment is within the discretion of the court,” the majority of the appeals court wrote. “There is no ministerial, indisputable legal duty clearly established in the law which requires judicial officers presiding over involuntary inpatient placement hearings … to be physically present with the patients, witnesses and attorneys.”
The appeals court, however, asked the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.