Trenton – In a unanimous decision today, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that individuals have a statutory right to self-representation when facing civil commitment proceedings after serving a criminal sentence for a sexual offense. Following initial briefing and oral argument, the Supreme Court asked Lowenstein Sandler to submit a supplemental, friend-of-the-court brief to elucidate the novel substantive due process issues raised by this appeal. Lowenstein, as pro bono counsel for Amici Curiae the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation (ACLU) and Disability Rights New Jersey, Inc., submitted a brief and participated in reargument, contending that individuals facing involuntary civil commitment should be constitutionally entitled to represent themselves.
The Court ruled instead on statutory grounds. The Court read the relevant provision, which prevents a person subject to involuntary commitment because of a sexual disorder from appearing at the hearing “without counsel,” to permit self-representation so long as standby counsel is present to advise the individual and help manage the proceedings. In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on the nation’s, and New Jersey’s, long history of permitting individuals to represent themselves so long as they are competent to make the decision to waive the right to counsel.
“The U.S. Supreme Court recognized decades ago that the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to counsel in criminal prosecutions should not prevent competent individuals from choosing to present their own defense,” said Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU. “Civil commitment carries the potential for even more severe consequences, with potentially indefinite confinement.”
Joseph Young, executive director of Disability Rights New Jersey, adds, “Many people facing civil commitment, especially those who may be confined because of a sexual disorder, have the capacity to represent themselves. While most will choose to be represented by counsel, there is no justification for forcing that choice on unwilling, competent individuals.”
“We are gratified to work in a state where the Supreme Court’s high regard for individual rights leads it to request additional briefing and argument on significant issues that implicate these rights,” said Lawrence Bluestone, associate at Lowenstein. “Today, the Court agreed that the autonomy interests enshrined in our country’s and state’s history should be honored when the state seeks to deprive someone of his or her liberty under this civil commitment statute.”
In re Civil Commitment of D.Y.: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/index.htm.