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In re Brown

July 2, 2009

IN RE ALMA BROWN, ET AL., APPELLANTS.


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Nos. MHE128-06, 193-06, 844-05, 217-06,189-06, 372-06, 221-06, 188-06, 260-06, 191-06, 390-06, 354-06, 370-06, 252-06, 1070-05 & 190-06) (Hon. Linda Kay Davis, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Senior Judge

Argued February 24, 2009

Before REID and FISHER, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.

Appellants are sixteen individuals committed to the custody of the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health for an indefinite period of time, pursuant to D.C. Code § 21-545. They challenge the trial court's denial of their consolidated motion to dismiss pending civil recommitment petitions filed against them by the District of Columbia. We do not reach the merits of the appeals because we lack subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, we dismiss the instant appeals without prejudice to possible future challenges after final judgments are entered in the trial court.

I.

The District of Columbia Hospitalization of the Mentally Ill Act, D.C. Code §§ 21-501-592 (1973) (amended 2004) ("Ervin Act"), provided for the indefinite commitment of any person found to be "mentally ill and, because of that mental illness, is likely to injure himself or others if not committed." D.C. Code § 21-545. All of the appellants were thus committed between 1976 and 2001, and remained committed when the actions in the trial court were commenced. In December of 2002, the Council of the District of Columbia ("Council") adopted the Mental Health Commitment Act of 2002, which made significant changes to the Ervin Act. D.C. Law 14-283, amending D.C. Code §§ 21-501-592 (2007 Supp.). Most relevant to the case at bar, the Act changed the duration of civil commitments from an indefinite period of time to a period of one year. D.C. Code § 21-545 (b)(2) (2007 Supp.). Section 2(gg), later codified at D.C. Code § 21-589.01, amended by D.C. Law 16-235, provided that all indeterminate commitments would "terminate no more than 18 months from January 1, 2003," unless recommitment petitions*fn1 were filed before that date.

While most provisions of the Act took effect on April 4, 2003, the portions of the Act that limited future commitments to a period of one year and established specific procedures for recommitment required affirmative congressional approval. When it became clear that Congress would not approve these provisions within 18 months after January 1, 2003 [by July 1, 2004], the Council enacted four sequential emergency and temporary amendments to Section 2(gg) in 2004. Each provided that all indefinite commitments would expire 548 days [18 months] from the date of congressional approval of the statutes in question.

Congress approved the provisions on December 10, 2004. On July 20, 2005, the last of the Council's 2004 temporary amendments expired, and the original version of Section 2(gg) became the controlling law.*fn2 Thus, the statutory authorization for continuing the indefinite commitments lapsed on July 20, 2005.

Apparently believing the indeterminate commitments would expire in June of 2006, eighteen months after congressional approval, the Department of Mental Health filed petitions for appellants' recommitment with the Mental Health Commission ("Commission") between October 2005 and April 2006. In May of 2006, one appellant filed the first motion to dismiss the recommitment petition "on jurisdictional grounds." The other appellants soon filed substantially verbatim motions, each arguing that the lapse of statutory authority caused his or her indefinite commitment to terminate without review on July 20, 2005. According to appellants, the government's failure to file recommitment petitions prior to that date stripped the Commission of jurisdiction to decide the petitions, necessitating dismissal of the motions to recommit.

In response to the motions filed by appellants, the Council passed a series of emergency, temporary, and permanent amendments ("2006 amendments"), all of which provided that the commitments of indefinitely committed persons expired "548 days after December 10, 2004 [the date of congressional approval], unless the Department of Mental Health has petitioned for recommitment." The amendments also state that the section "shall apply as of July 20, 2005."

Following the enactment of the first of the 2006 amendments, the District filed its response to appellants' consolidated motion to dismiss the recommitment petitions, relying on the 2006 amendments as the basis for the Commission's jurisdiction over these cases. The Commission agreed with the government's argument and denied the appellants' motions. Appellants then filed a motion for review of the Commission's order in Superior Court, continuing to seek dismissal of the petitions. Judge Linda Davis rejected appellants' arguments and denied the motions to dismiss. These appeals followed.

Before us, appellants challenge the 2006 amendments as exceeding the Council's authority under the Home Rule Act, D.C. Code § 1-201.01 et. seq. (2001), as in violation of due process, and as bills of attainder. We do not reach the merits of these arguments, because we lack subject matter jurisdiction over these appeals.

II.

Subject to certain exceptions that are not applicable here, we have jurisdiction to review only "final orders and judgments" of the Superior Court, D.C. Code ยง 11-721 (a)(1) (2001), and "the lack of finality is a bar to appellate jurisdiction." Rolinski v. Lewis, 828 A.2d 739, 745 (D.C. 2003). "A party must ordinarily raise ...


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