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Abstract

In one of its most controversial decisions to date, United States v. Comstock, the Roberts Court upheld a federal civil commitment statute requiring only an intermediate burden of proof. The statute provided for the postsentencing confinement of anyone proven by "clear and convincing evidence" to be mentally ill and dangerous. The law relied on a judicial standard established more than thirty years before. The majority in Comstock missed the opportunity to reassess the precedent in light of recent psychiatric studies indicating that the ambiguity of available diagnostic tools can lead to erroneous insanity assessments and mistaken evaluations about patients’ likelihood to engage in dangerous activities. I contend that the "clear and convincing standard" of proof inadequately protects patients’ due process rights because civil commitment hearings can result in severe deprivations of liberty. Commitments of felons whose continued dangerousness remains in doubt raises significant due process concerns. Even more troubling is the civil commitment of individuals with no criminal records of violence to whom the clear and convincing standard also applies. In this Article, I argue that the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof is needed to closely scrutinize evidence of mental disease and dangerousness. The multidisciplinary approach I pursue offers a unique framework for resolving a social problem that has been inadequately described in extant legal writings. I reflect on Supreme Court precedents in light of psychiatric studies about the limited reliability of emergency commitments and set out a standard adopted from criminal proceedings to better prevent unnecessary mental hospitalization.

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