Vol. LIV No. 2

Wherefore Art Thou Romeo: Revitalizing Youngberg’s Protection of Liberty for the Civilly Committed

Abstract:  Thirty years ago, in Youngberg v. Romeo, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that those who are involuntarily committed in a state institution enjoy a constitutionally protected liberty interest, which protects the right to reasonably safe conditions of confinement, freedom from unreasonable restraint, and minimally adequate training sufficient to ensure these liberty interests. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that when government officials make decisions that constitute a substantial departure from professional judgment, causing injury to these liberty interests, the officials violate the substantive due process guarantee of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Despite the Supreme Court’s admonition that those who are civilly committed in state institutions do not lose their core liberty interests and that they enjoy greater protection than convicted criminals, many lower courts have seriously eroded the substantive due process protection recognized in Youngberg. Two Supreme Court decisions, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services and County of Sacramento v. Lewis, have fueled this erosion. This Article seeks to revitalize Youngberg’s protection of liberty for the civilly committed by explaining why neither DeShaney nor Lewis should be interpreted to limit the fundamental liberty interests recognized in Youngberg.

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