Matthews, Lora and Morgan.
[137 NJSuper Page 22] Zachery Alfred, while serving a sentence for shoplifting in the Mercer County Correction Center, was transferred to the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital pursuant
to a temporary commitment order. Shortly thereafter his sentence expired, but two indictments were still outstanding against him on unrelated charges. Regular commitment proceedings were then instituted against Alfred, although the record is unclear as to who instituted the proceedings.
On January 13, 1975, pursuant to motion of the Public Advocate and following oral argument, the Assignment Judge of Mercer County entered an order (1) entitling Alfred to the assistance of an independent psychiatrist in contesting the application for his involuntary commitment, (2) providing that the costs of such psychiatric assistance be borne by Mercer County, and (3) ordering the "necessary legal representation to prosecute the commitment -- be provided by the County of Mercer."
On January 23, 1975 Mercer County filed a notice of appeal from the whole of the order, but neither a stay of the order nor leave to appeal was sought by appellant. The final commitment hearing was held on February 20, 1975 at which Mercer County counsel appeared on behalf of the Mercer County adjuster and the Public Advocate appeared for Alfred, together with the psychiatrist appointed by the court. On March 3, 1975, the trial judge entered a final order that Alfred did not require further hospitalization and transferring him back to the Mercer County Jail pending trial on the two outstanding criminal charges.
On appeal Mercer County contends the Division of Mental Health Advocacy within the Department of the Public Advocate should bear the costs of an independent psychiatrist appointed by the trial judge when the Division is representing an indigent in a civil commitment proceeding, and that the Attorney General and not the county should prosecute such cases.
Both the State and the Public Advocate assert that under the New Jersey civil commitment scheme the county in which a defendant has his legal settlement is responsible for effectuating the commitment process and bearing the
necessary expenses of its operations, including the cost of an independent psychiatrist.
While the question as to who should provide the necessary legal representation to prosecute this commitment is obviously moot since final hearing has been held at which both the State and the county were represented by counsel, and notwithstanding the trial judge's order was interlocutory in nature, we deem the issue of sufficient public importance to warrant a determination on the merits. Cf. In re Geraghty , 68 N.J. 209 (1975); Oxfeld v. New Jersey State Bd. of Ed. , 68 N.J. 301 (1975).
N.J.S.A. 30:4-23 et seq. sets forth the statutory scheme for the confinement, care and treatment of the mentally handicapped, including the procedures for involuntary civil commitment and the hearing process. N.J.S.A. 30:4-34 creates the office of county adjuster with the "charge and supervision of the preparation of papers relating to the commitment of the mentally ill or mentally retarded in such county, and in cases arising in other counties in which the legal settlement appears to be in his county." The Superior Court or County Court within the county may appoint the county adjuster to act as referee, with subpoena powers to take testimony on the question of legal settlement and the financial ability of the patient or his legally responsible relatives to pay the cost of maintenance, and to report to the court his findings, conclusions and recommendations.
Actions for commitment may, under N.J.S.A. 30:4-27, be brought by a person interested by reason of relationship or marriage, or by the person having the charge or care of such patient, or by the sheriff, county prosecutor, municipal or county director of welfare or person charged with the care and relief of the poor, chief of police or police captain of any municipality where such patient may be, or by the chief executive ...