Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building
Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building (Phil Sears)

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 allowing a judge and a magistrate to skip travel to receiving facilities to hold evidentiary hearings on whether patients should be involuntarily committed, according to a Sept. 28 ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal. The decision opened to door to video hearings.

Attorneys for patients filed a legal challenge, arguing the hearings should be held in person instead of remotely.

A Second District panel in a 2-1 decision rejected the challenge while expressing 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 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.

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 allowing a judge and a magistrate to skip travel to receiving facilities to hold evidentiary hearings on whether patients should be involuntarily committed, according to a Sept. 28 ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal. The decision opened to door to video hearings.

Attorneys for patients filed a legal challenge, arguing the hearings should be held in person instead of remotely.

A Second District panel in a 2-1 decision rejected the challenge while expressing 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 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.