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In re Mental Commitment of J.W.K.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

May 21, 2019

In the matter of the mental commitment of J.W.K.:
J.W.K., Respondent-Appellant-Petitioner. Portage County, Petitioner-Respondent,

          Oral argument: December 11, 2018

          Circuit Court Portage county Thomas T. Flugaur Judge.

         REVIEW of a decision of the Court of Appeals. Affirmed.

          For the respondent-appellant-petitioner, there were briefs filed by Katie R. York, assistant state public defender. There was an oral argument by Katie R. York.

          For the petitioner-respondent, there was a brief filed by Briana L. Sweeney and Interim Deputy Corporation Counsel, Stevens Point. There was an oral argument by Briana L. Sweeney.


         ¶1 An issue is moot when its resolution will have no practical effect on the underlying controversy. In this review of a Chapter 51 recommitment order, we consider whether J.W.K.'s sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge to the 2016 order extending his commitment is rendered moot because the 2016 order expired after the court extended his commitment in 2017 under a separate order.[1] Reversing the expired 2016 order for insufficient evidence would have no effect on subsequent recommitment orders because later orders stand on their own under the language of the statute. We therefore hold that J.W.K.'s sufficiency challenge is moot, and we affirm the court of appeals' decision dismissing the appeal.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         ¶2 J.W.K. was originally committed in February 2016 for six months under Wis.Stat. § 51.20 (2017-18).[3] In July 2016, Portage County filed a petition seeking to extend J.W.K.'s commitment for twelve months. The petition alleged J.W.K.: (1) was "currently committed for involuntary treatment" at an inpatient facility; (2) was a proper subject for commitment; (3) had the mental illness of schizophrenia; (4) was "presently dangerous as set forth in Sec. 51.20(1)(a) or based on [J.W.K.'s] treatment record . . . would be a proper subject for commitment if treatment were withdrawn as evidenced by: in the past when commitment has expired, [J.W.K.] has discontinued psychotropic medications and became a danger to self or others or demonstrated inability to care for self"; and (5) was "not competent to refuse psychotropic medication or treatment."

         ¶3 The circuit court held a hearing on the extension petition in August 2016. At the hearing, the County presented only the testimony of Dr. James Persing, who testified J.W.K. was suffering from schizophrenia, and the symptoms included "most prominently . . . delusional thinking and paranoia." Persing said that J.W.K. was being treated with medication, and this medication helped "organize [J.W.K.'s] thought processes" and clear his delusional thinking and hallucinations. Persing also opined that J.W.K. would be a proper subject for commitment if treatment were withdrawn. On cross-examination, Persing clarified that he based his opinion on J.W.K.'s "history" and "overall struggles with chronic mental illness for many years with variable levels of compliance with treatment, and leading up to a point of [a] variety of altercations." The doctor made clear J.W.K.'s "need for mental health commitment."[4]

         ¶4 J.W.K. testified on his own behalf. When his attorney asked whether he understood the hearing was to determine whether his commitment would be extended, J.W.K. responded that the hearing "involve[d] more than that," and proceeded to tell the circuit court that his family was stealing his money by "breaking and entering into" his "private property and . . . private home . . . and removing" his important "documents." When his attorney interrupted to redirect him, J.W.K. told the circuit court he would continue treatment on an outpatient basis and take his medication even if he were not committed.

         ¶5 At the conclusion of the testimony, the circuit court found the statutory dangerousness standard was satisfied because "there is a substantial likelihood that [J.W.K.] would be a proper subject for commitment if treatment were withdrawn." Accordingly, the circuit court extended J.W.K.'s commitment for twelve months, ending on August 2, 2017.

         ¶6 J.W.K. did not timely appeal this order, but filed a pro se motion asking for an extension "due to the lack of exchange of information due to conflicting interest." The court of appeals granted the motion, reinstated J.W.K.'s postconviction rights and gave J.W.K. until April 24, 2017 to seek postcommitment relief. The State Public Defender's office appointed counsel for J.W.K. On April 3, 2017 his counsel filed a notice of intent to seek postcommitment relief and on August 7, 2017 filed a notice of appeal.

         ¶7 Meanwhile, with J.W.K.'s 2016 extension order expiring on August 2, 2017, the County filed a petition seeking another twelve-month extension of J.W.K.'s commitment, which the circuit court granted after holding a hearing on July 21, 2017.

         ¶8 In September 2017, the court of appeals ordered J.W.K. to file a memorandum addressing whether his appeal of the August 2016 order was moot, given he filed his notice of appeal after a new order extending his commitment had been entered in July 2017. After considering submissions addressing mootness from J.W.K. and the County, the court of appeals dismissed the appeal as moot "because J.W.K. is no longer subject to the order being appealed." The court of appeals acknowledged that "exceptions to dismissal based on mootness exist, as for example, when an issue is of great public importance or arises frequently but evades review," but it did not consider the mootness exceptions because J.W.K. did "not argue that any of the exceptions appl[ied] in this case."

         ¶9 J.W.K. petitioned for review, arguing his appeal was not moot and asserting the evidence presented at the August 2016 extension hearing was insufficient to prove he was dangerous. We granted the petition.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶10 Mootness is a question of law we review de novo. PRN Assocs. LLC v. DOA, 2009 WI 53, ¶25, 317 Wis.2d 656, 766 N.W.2d 559. J.W.K.'s argument requires us to interpret Wis.Stat. § 51.20; statutory interpretation is a question of law we review de novo. Waukesha Cty. v. J.W.J., 2017 WI 57, ¶14, 375 Wis.2d 542, 895 N.W.2d 783. "[S]tatutory interpretation 'begins with the language of the statute.'" State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cty., 2004 WI 58, ¶45, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110 (quoted source omitted) . We give statutory language "its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specially-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meaning." Id. If this process yields a plain meaning, our inquiry ends. Id.

         B. Discussion

         ¶11 Before addressing J.W.K.'s substantive claim on sufficiency of the evidence, we must first consider the threshold issue of whether J.W.K.'s appeal is moot. If the appeal is moot, then we do not reach J.W.K.'s sufficiency argument. "An issue is moot when its resolution will have no practical effect on the underlying controversy." PRN Assocs. LLC, 317 Wis.2d 656, ¶25; see also City of Racine v. J-T Enters, of Am., Inc., 64 Wis.2d 691, 700, 221 N.W.2d 869 (1974) ("This court has consistently adhered to the rule that a case is moot when 'a determination is sought which, when made, cannot have any practical effect upon an existing controversy.'" (quoted source omitted)).

A moot case has been defined as one which seeks to determine an abstract question which does not rest upon existing facts or rights, or which seeks a judgment in a pretended controversy when in reality there is none, or one which seeks a decision in advance about a right before it has actually been asserted or contested, or a judgment upon some matter which when rendered for any cause cannot have any practical legal effect upon the existing controversy.

Fort Howard Paper Co. v. Fort Howard Corp., 273 Wis. 356, 360, 77 N.W.2d 733 (1956) (quoted source omitted); see also State ex rel. Ellenburg v. Gagnon, 76 Wis.2d 532, 535, 251 N.W.2d 773 (1977) .

         ¶12 Appellate courts generally decline to reach moot issues, and if all issues on appeal are moot, the appeal should be dismissed. See id.; PRN Assocs. LLC, 317 Wis.2d 656, ¶¶25, 29. We may, however, choose to address moot issues in "exceptional or compelling circumstances." J-T Enters., 64 Wis.2d at 702. There are several established exceptions under which this court may elect to address moot issues: (1) "the issues are of great public importance;" (2) "the constitutionality of a statute is involved;" (3) the situation arises so often "a definitive decision is essential to guide the trial courts;" (4) "the issue is likely to arise again and should be resolved by the court to avoid uncertainty;" or (5) the issue is "capable and likely of repetition and yet evades review." G.S ...

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