K.J. v. Superintendent of Bridgewater State Hosp.

Decision Date08 September 2021
Docket NumberSJC-13081
Citation488 Mass. 362,173 N.E.3d 363
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Karen Owen Talley, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the plaintiff.

Edward J. O'Donnell for the defendants.

Tatum A. Pritchard, Jennifer Honig, & Martin F. Murphy, Boston, for Disability Law Center, Inc., & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Patricia Reilly, Assistant District Attorney, for District Attorney for the Plymouth District & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Budd, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, Kafker, Wendlandt, & Georges, JJ.


This is a case about the separation of powers concerns implicated by the placement of a pretrial detainee or prisoner who is involuntarily committed on account of mental illness. In this context, G. L. c. 123 requires a judge in a commitment proceeding to determine first whether the person requires involuntary commitment and, if so, whether that commitment should take place at the Bridgewater State Hospital (Bridgewater) or at a lower security Department of Mental Health (DMH) facility.2 See G. L. c. 123, §§ 8, 18 (a ). Giving the judge authority not only over the commitment decision, but also over whether placement will occur at Bridgewater or a DMH facility, is in line with the purpose of c. 123, which the Legislature completely revised in 1970 to expand access to courts for those committed involuntarily because of mental illness, and which also requires that involuntary commitments occur in the least restrictive option available. See Commonwealth v. Nassar, 380 Mass. 908, 912 n.5, 917-918, 406 N.E.2d 1286 (1980).

The plaintiff, K.J., is a pretrial detainee who was previously committed to Bridgewater under G. L. c. 123, § 18 (a ), the provision of c. 123 that deals with commitment of pretrial detainees and prisoners. Section 18 (a ) also incorporates §§ 7 and 8 for subsequent commitment hearings. After a hearing on a petition to recommit K.J. to Bridgewater for one year, the judge determined that K.J. was mentally ill, posed a likelihood of serious harm if not confined, and therefore required commitment. See G. L. c. 123, §§ 8 (a ), 18 (a ). To commit a person3 to Bridgewater, however, a judge must additionally find that strict custody is required. See G. L. c. 123, §§ 8 (b ), 18 (a ). The judge here found that K.J. did not require strict custody and, thus, as the statute required him to do, issued an order committing K.J. to a DMH facility. See id.

Despite that order, however, the Commissioner of Correction (commissioner) utilized what we call the "commissioner's certification" provision in § 18 (a ) to retain K.J. at Bridgewater.4 We must now determine whether the commissioner's exercise of this provision violates art. 30 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which, among other things, protects the independence of the judiciary by prohibiting other branches from overturning court orders.5 We hold that it does.6

Background. K.J. is an adult man who currently faces criminal charges in the Worcester Division of the District Court and in the Superior Court.7 K.J. initially was charged in the District Court on December 10, 2018, and held on bail. On December 11, 2018, K.J. was committed involuntarily to Bridgewater. In April of 2019, K.J.’s commitment to Bridgewater was extended for a period of six months, and then, in December of 2019, for an additional period of one year. See G. L. c. 123, §§ 7, 8, 18 (a ). On December 2, 2020, the medical director of Bridgewater petitioned to have K.J. again recommitted for one year under § 18 (a ). See id.

The Brockton Division of the District Court, sitting at Bridgewater, held a hearing via Zoom video conferencing on January 6, 2021.8 In support of its petition, Bridgewater called a licensed psychologist as its sole witness. The psychologist testified that K.J. meets the diagnostic criteria for schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, and that he currently experiences auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and somatic delusions. The psychologist testified that historically the exacerbation of K.J.’s symptoms has led to aggressive behaviors and serious bodily injury to other people, but that he had not engaged in any physical assaults or altercations since July or August 2020. The psychologist also testified that K.J. currently was incapable of returning to a penal setting because such an environment would not be able to enforce his court-ordered medication plan and because it could be destabilizing. The psychologist testified that a DMH facility would be able to enforce K.J.’s medication plan, although a transfer to such a facility could be destabilizing. Finally, the psychologist testified that K.J. had never attempted to escape.

K.J. testified on his own behalf. He stated that he knew he had a mental illness. He also testified that he takes all his medications as prescribed and has had no signs or incidences of violence in more than six months. K.J. asserted that he hoped that he would be recognized for doing well and would have the opportunity to transfer to a DMH facility.

After hearing the testimony, the judge ordered that K.J. be transferred to a DMH facility. In the ruling, the judge found that K.J. was mentally ill, that failure to retain him in a facility would create a likelihood of serious harm, and that there was no less restrictive alternative. Following its receipt of the judge's order, Bridgewater filed a certification by the commissioner pursuant to § 18 (a ). The one-sentence certification stated only that commitment to Bridgewater was "necessary to ensure his continued retention in custody."

K.J. then filed a motion to find Bridgewater in contempt of a court order, requesting immediate release to a DMH facility, which Bridgewater opposed. The same judge who had issued the § 18 (a ) order held a nonevidentiary hearing where he further explained his ruling from the prior hearing: that while there was some evidence that K.J. required strict security, it did not rise to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, the judge noted, there was no evidence that K.J. was a flight risk.

Despite this, the judge ultimately denied K.J.’s motion to hold Bridgewater in contempt. The judge wrote:

"[T]his court is troubled by [Bridgewater]’s arbitrary application of the provisions of [ § 18 (a ) ] and the clear separation of powers issues raised by the certification process. However, the appropriate avenue is a direct appeal of the certification process and any other issue(s) raised by the hearing on the petition."

K.J. filed a petition pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, seeking release from Bridgewater and enforcement of the District Court judge's commitment order to a DMH facility. A single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court.

Discussion. 1. Separation of powers. "Massachusetts is one of only a few States to articulate an explicit separation of powers in our Constitution." Commonwealth v. Cole, 468 Mass. 294, 301, 10 N.E.3d 1081 (2014). Article 30 is that explicit statement; it provides:

"In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men."

Although we have "recognized that separation of powers does not require three ‘watertight compartments’ within the government" (citation omitted), Opinions of the Justices, 372 Mass. 883, 892, 363 N.E.2d 652 (1977), this recognition does not dissipate the importance of art. 30. The limitations of art. 30 must still be "scrupulously observed." Commonwealth v. Gonsalves, 432 Mass. 613, 619, 739 N.E.2d 1100 (2000). Among other ways, the executive and legislative branches violate art. 30 where they "impermissibly interfere with judicial functions when they purport to restrict or abolish a court's inherent powers, or when they purport to reverse, modify, or contravene a court order" (citations omitted). Gray v. Commissioner of Revenue, 422 Mass. 666, 671, 665 N.E.2d 17 (1996).

K.J. alleges that the commissioner's certification causes both types of interferences. Because the judge ordered K.J. to be committed to a DMH facility as the statute instructed him to do, see G. L. c. 123, § 8 (b ), and because the commissioner essentially overruled that order by deciding to keep K.J. at Bridgewater anyway, we agree with K.J. that the commissioner's certification allows the executive branch to "reverse, modify, or contravene a court order." Gray, 422 Mass. at 671, 665 N.E.2d 17. Thus, it violates art. 30.9

a. Legal principles. As far back as 1861, we have held that an act passed by the Legislature violated art. 30 where it effectively annulled a court decree in a case properly before the court:

"It is the exclusive province of courts of justice to apply established principles to cases within their jurisdiction, and to enforce their decisions by rendering judgments and executing them by suitable process. The legislature have no power to interfere with this jurisdiction in such manner as to change the decision of cases pending before courts, or to impair or set aside their judgments, or take cases out of the settled course of judicial proceeding.... A fortiori, an act of the legislature cannot set aside or annul final judgments or decrees. This is the highest exercise of judicial authority.... Indeed it is difficult to see how the legislature could more palpably invade the judicial department and effectually usurp its functions, than to pass statutes which should operate to set aside or annul judgments of courts in their nature final, and which would otherwise be conclusive on the rights of parties." (Emphases added.)

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  • Commonwealth v. Dufresne
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
    • February 24, 2022
    ...court's inherent powers, or when they purport to reverse, modify, or contravene a court order.’ " K.J. v. Superintendent of Bridgewater State Hosp., 488 Mass. 362, 366, 173 N.E.3d 363 (2021), quoting Gray v. Commissioner of Revenue, 422 Mass. 666, 671, 665 N.E.2d 17 (1996). Nonetheless, the......
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    ...the separation of powers provisions of art. 30 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Cf. K.J. v. Superintendent of Bridgewater State Hosp., 488 Mass. 362, 368, 173 N.E.3d 363 (2021) ("the essence of what cannot be tolerated under art. 30" is "interference by one department [of governm......

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