The practice was halted in April when a judicial assistant for Judge Andrew Swett announced via email the judge would no longer be commuting to SalusCare and Park Royal Hospital but would instead chime in via a television screen.
The hearings in question relate to people who have been involuntarily committed for mental health reasons. The Baker Act, or the Florida Mental Health Act, is used to commit someone for 72 hours. After three days, the individual can be released or the hospital can order a hearing where a judge decides whether to commit the individual for a longer period of time.
Kathy Smith, public defender for the 20th Judicial District, asked the court to intervene on behalf of people with mental disabilities.
The issue went to the Supreme Court after a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in September that nothing bars a Lee County judge from appearing via a screen in Baker Act cases, according to the News Service of Florida.
|Kathy Smith, public defender - 20th Judicial District.|
The hearings held through screens left her clients wondering what was real and what wasn't' real, said Smith, who serves on the Supreme Court Task Force for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
"When they are having those concerns it makes it all the more difficult for us to tell their story," she said.
Mental heath advocates, including the Disability Rights Florida Inc., filed a brief on arguing that appearing electronically was inappropriate in these cases.
A decision allowing for judges to telecommute would be adverse to people who have mental disabilities, the group states.
"They are one of the most vulnerable populations that we deal with as lawyers and sometimes that means going the extra mile to make sure they understand what's happening," Smith said. "It's important."
The court began to use telecommuting in mental health facilities "for the purpose of promoting efficiency, time management of limited judicial resources, and security concerns," said Sara Miles, public information officer for the 20th Judicial Circuit.
|Judge Andrew Swett|
The technology used for appearing via teleconference is state-funded and "allows for clear visual and audio contact," Miles said.
"Due process is preserved," she said, adding that the patients receive prompt timely hearings.
A final decision has not been made by the Supreme Court, but until then Judge Swett will have to commute to the hospitals for the Baker Act hearings.
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Lee Co. judges have to be present at Baker Act cases