TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on whether judges should use video conferencing for hearings involving mentally ill patients who were involuntarily committed.

The request comes out of a dispute in Lee County after a judge and magistrate sent an email advising “that they would no longer be commuting to the receiving facilities to hold the statutorily required hearing in person. Instead, the judicial officers would preside remotely from the courthouse via video conference equipment while the patients, witnesses and attorneys would continue to be physically present at the receiving facility evidentiary hearings regarding the involuntary commitment of patients,” court documents state.

Patients' attorneys filed a challenge to the ruling saying that hearings should be done in person, not through video conferencing. Court documents indicate there were 15 petitions filed, 14 from patients and one “John Doe." The 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected their challenge in a 2-1 ruling. In the ruling, the court asked the Supreme Court to resolve the issue, stating that "We deny the petitions but certify a question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court.”

Public defender Kathleen Smith has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the issue. She said the issue was one of patient liberty and dignity.

“We are looking at a population of people that are some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Smith told the Florida Record. “Many of the people do not understand that this is actually a court proceeding because they do not have a judicial officer that is appearing before them in person. They can’t grasp the concept that this is actually a hearing that is determining their liberty that is actually happening.”

According to the courts, the Baker Act, which has also been called the Florida Mental Health Act, defines a process that individuals who are seen as having mental, emotional and behavioral disorders can be committed for treatment. The act also allows for the involuntary examination of such patients. Facility administrators can file for involuntary inpatient placement. If that happens a lawyer will be provided for the patient and there must be an evidentiary hearing within five working days.

“The petitioners here have not cited, and we have not found, an express legal right to have the judicial officer be physically present with the petitioners when holding the Baker Act hearing. Nor have the petitioners cited any express legal duty on the part of the judge," court documents state.

The court said it failed to find any duty defined in the law that would require the judicial officer to be physically present at the hearing. It will now be up to the Supreme Court to make the decision.

“Every client that appears before the court that is looking at a loss of liberty deserves dignity and deserves their day in court,” Smith said. “I think video conferencing hearing actually is the antithesis of that. I think they deserve the respect and they deserve the dignity to have a judicial officer present in front of them to be able to appreciate all the nuances that go on in a hearing.”

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