On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance in part. and reversal in part -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.
[94 NJ Page 130] The nine consolidated cases before us focus our attention on the plight of individuals who have been committed in mental institutions for most of their adult lives.*fn1 In seven of the cases, a court determined that after decades in mental hospitals the appellants were no longer committable, although they remained incapable of carrying on an independent and self-sufficient life. In the two remaining cases, appellants argued unsuccessfully
that their situations were similar. Together these cases require us to determine the legal status of individuals who no longer meet our standards for civil commitment, yet who require some degree of custodial care, and the procedures necessary to ensure protection of their legal rights.
In each of these nine cases,*fn2 appellant challenges an order continuing civil commitment at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Seven of the patients*fn3 had been ordered discharged pending placement by a Chancery Division judge in proceedings prior to the hearings that are the subject of these appeals. The status of these individuals, referred to by the abbreviation "DPP," is not formally recognized by any statute, administrative regulation or court rule. Nevertheless, administrators of the mental health system and many judges have assumed the existence of such a status and used the DPP classification for patients who cannot live independently outside the institution but who are no longer legally committable under conventional standards. See R. 4:74-7(f) (individual must be dangerous to self, others or property by reason of mental illness in order for court to enter judgment of commitment). These patients, although technically "discharged," remain in mental hospitals until appropriate outside placements become available.
In these seven cases the appellants had been classified by a court as DPPs in proceedings conducted pursuant to R. 4:74-7(f) because they no longer met the legal standards for commitment due to remission or the effects of aging and physical disease. In late 1980, each was notified that a further hearing would be
conducted to review their possibilities for placement. At these hearings conducted on November 18 and December 17, 1980, a second court refused to recognize the validity of the previous adjudication of appellants as DPPs, finding the DPP classification to be a nullity. The court instead conducted a commitment review hearing and found that each appellant met the legal standards for commitment and was not eligible or entitled to be discharged.*fn4
In the two remaining appeals, appellants J.A. and R.G. were never judicially declared to be DPPs. However, at the periodic hearings reviewing their commitments pursuant to R. 4:74-7(f), they requested designation as DPPs. The court denied this request, declaring that the DPP classification did not exist.
The nine cases were consolidated on appeal to the Appellate Division, which dismissed the appeals on February 24, 1982. The court indicated that a decision on the merits of the cases would require the court in effect to amend the court rules and would have "enormous legislative and fiscal ramifications." Deferring to the Supreme Court's rule-making power and the Legislature's economic judgment, the Appellate Division held the issues presented to be nonjusticiable. Appellants' petition for certification was granted on May 18, 1982.
The central issue in these appeals implicates the legal rights of patients in State mental hospitals who have been discharged under current standards governing civil commitments but who cannot survive independently outside the institution without some ...