Parham v. J. R. (1979)

A parent or a guardian can commit a minor to a mental institution if a staff physician certifies that the minor should be committd, even if the minor strenuously opposes their decision. The Court specifically rejected claims that commitment of a minor by a parent or guardian without an adversary hearing is a deprivation of the minor’s liberty without due process of law.

Citation: 442 U.S. 584 (1979)
Date decided: Jun 20, 1979
Longer case name: Parham, Commissioner, Department of Human Resources of Georgia, et al. v. J.R. et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Georgia
Topic(s):Due process, Mental health, Mental institutions, and Minors
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:John L. Cromartie, Jr., (Georgia Legal Services) reargued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief on the original argument was Gerald R. Tarutis.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by William B. Spann, Jr., John H. Lashly, and Daniel L. Skoler for the American Bar Association; by Stephen P. Berzon, Marian Wright Edelman, and Paul R. Friedman for the American Orthopsychiatric Association et al.; by Joel I. Klein for the American Psychiatric Association et al.; by Robert L. Walker for the Child Welfare League of America; by Stanley C. Van Ness for the Department of the Public Advocate, Division of Mental Health Advocacy of New Jersey; and by Robert S. Catz for the Urban Law Institute. Solicitor General McCree, Assistant Attorney General Days, Brian K. Landsberg, and Mark L. Gross filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae.
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Case Importance

From Wikipedia: “The American Journal of Law and Medicine has argued that the decision’s failure to provide protections for mature minors and wards of the state was inconsistent with due process, and has urged reconsideration of the ruling. Winsor C. Schmidt, Jr., writing in the Journal of Psychiatry and Law, has criticized the decision, stating that its use of medical studies was ‘unsophisticated and noncomprehensive.'”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)


Appellees, children being treated in a Georgia state mental hospital, instituted in Federal District Court a class action against Georgia mental health officials. Appellees sought a declaratory judgment that Georgia’s procedures for voluntary commitment of children under the age of 18 to state mental hospitals violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and requested an injunction against their future enforcement. Under the Georgia statute providing for the voluntary admission of children to state regional hospitals, admission begins with an application for hospitalization signed by a parent or guardian and, upon application, the superintendent of the hospital is authorized to admit temporarily any child for “observation and diagnosis.” If after observation the superintendent finds “evidence of mental illness” and that the child is “suitable for treatment” in the hospital, the child may be admitted “for such period and under such conditions as may be authorized by law.” Under Georgia’s mental health statute, any child who has been hospitalized for more than five days may be discharged at the request of a parent or guardian, and the hospital superintendent, even without a request for discharge, has an affirmative duty to release any child “who has recovered from his mental illness or who has sufficiently improved that the superintendent determines that hospitalization of the patient is no longer desirable.” The District Court held that Georgia’s statutory scheme was unconstitutional because it failed to protect adequately the appellees’ due process rights and that the process due included at least the right after notice to an adversary-type hearing before an impartial tribunal.


The District Court erred in holding unconstitutional the State’s procedures for admitting a child for treatment to a state mental hospital, since on the record in this case, Georgia’s medical factfinding processes are consistent with constitutional guarantees. Pp. 598-621.

(a) Testing challenged state procedures under a due process claim requires a balancing of (i) the private interest that will be affected by [442 U.S. 584, 585] the official action; (ii) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and (iii) the state’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. Cf. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 ; Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816, 848 -849. Pp. 599-600.

(b) Notwithstanding a child’s liberty interest in not being confined unnecessarily for medical treatment, and assuming that a person has a protectible interest in not being erroneously labeled as mentally ill, parents – who have traditional interests in and responsibility for the upbringing of their child – retain a substantial, if not the dominant, role in the decision, absent a finding of neglect or abuse. However, the child’s rights and the nature of the commitment decision are such that parents do not always have absolute discretion to institutionalize a child; they retain plenary authority to seek such care for their children, subject to an independent medical judgment. Cf. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 ; Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 ; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 ; Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 . Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 , distinguished. Pp. 600-604.

(c) The State has significant interests in confining the use of costly mental health facilities to cases of genuine need, in not imposing unnecessary procedural obstacles that may discourage the mentally ill or their families from seeking needed psychiatric assistance, and in allocating priority to the diagnosis and treatment of patients as soon as they are admitted to a hospital rather than to time-consuming preadmission procedures. Pp. 604-606.

(d) The risk of error inherent in the parental decision to have a child institutionalized for mental health care is sufficiently great that some kind of inquiry should be made by a “neutral factfinder” to determine whether the statutory requirements for admission are satisfied, see Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 271 ; Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 489 , and to probe the child’s background. The decisionmaker must have the authority to refuse to admit any child who does not satisfy the medical standards for admission. The need for continuing commitment must be reviewed periodically. Pp. 606-607.

(e) Due process does not require that the neutral factfinder be law trained or a judicial or administrative officer; nor is it necessary that the admitting physician conduct a formal or quasi-formal adversary hearing or that the hearing be conducted by someone other than the admitting physician. While the medical decisionmaking process may [442 U.S. 584, 586] not be error free, nevertheless the independent medical decisionmaking process, which includes a thorough psychiatric investigation followed by additional periodic review of a child’s condition will identify children who should not be admitted; risks of error will not be significantly reduced by a more formal, judicial-type hearing. Pp. 607-613.

(f) Georgia’s practices, as described in the record, comport with minimum due process requirements. The state statute envisions a careful diagnostic medical inquiry to be conducted by the admitting physician at each regional hospital. Georgia’s procedures are not “arbitrary” in the sense that a single physician or other professional has the “unbridled discretion” to commit a child to a regional hospital. While Georgia’s general administrative and statutory scheme for the voluntary commitment of children is not unconstitutional, the District Court, on remand, may consider any individual claims that the initial admissions of particular children did not meet due process standards, and may also consider whether the various hospitals’ procedures for periodic review of their patients’ need for institutional care are sufficient to justify continuing a voluntary commitment. Pp. 613-617.

(g) The differences between the situation where the child is a ward of the State of Georgia and the State requests his admission to a state mental hospital, and the situation where the child’s natural parents request his admission, do not justify requiring different procedures at the time of the child’s initial admission to the hospital. Pp. 617-620.

412 F. Supp. 112, reversed and remanded.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:56
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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