BRATTLEBORO—Asserting that the public’s right to access court records is “deep-rooted” and necessary for ensuring accountability, the Vermont Supreme Court has overturned a Windham County judge’s decision to redact portions of two suspects’ mental competency reports.
While there are instances where the legally relevant portions of a competency report can be kept out of the public record, a majority of Supreme Court justices wrote that those situations are limited. And they found no evidence that redaction had been justified in the cases in question.
The appeals court, in an opinion dated Nov. 13, also made several broad statements about open records.
“For the judicial system to function properly, it is essential that the basis for court rulings not be cloaked, because this prevents the public from knowing how and why decisions have been reached,” the justices wrote.
There were differing takes on the court’s ruling.
The issue had been appealed by Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney David Gartenstein, who argued that “the intersection of the criminal justice and mental health care systems is an area of primary public interest and importance.”
“The law provides for competency reports, to the extent that they’re relevant, to be admitted into evidence and made publicly available,” Gartenstein said on Nov. 17. “In these cases, significant parts of the competency evaluations were sealed and not made publicly available. It was the position of the state that the public should have access to those records because they were relevant.”
While the decision can be seen as a victory for the state, Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio cautioned against too much extrapolation to other criminal cases.
“We looked at this as the court rejecting the ‘everything becomes public’ argument that the state was making,” Valerio said.
Rather, Valerio said determining whether a suspect’s competency report will be entirely public “is going to be case-specific. It’s going to be fact-driven.”
And Valerio says that’s the way it should be, given the sensitive nature of mental-health questions.
When competency issues arise, “you’re determining whether or not a person should even be before a court,” Valerio said. “You’re talking about mental-health, substance-abuse, and regular health records.”
A fluid legal concept
The Supreme Court decision stems from unrelated cases against two defendants in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
Anthony Gotavaskas, then a Brattleboro resident, was charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling in one docket and, in another, providing false information and operation without the owner’s consent. Mental-health issues were raised at his arraignment in September 2013.
A few weeks later, Dr. Paul Cotton, a Burlington-based psychiatrist, found Gotavaskas competent to stand trial. While Gotavaskas didn’t contest that finding, he objected to the state’s request to admit the entire competency report into evidence.
As a result, Judge David Suntag “redacted the competency report to include only information regarding the evaluator’s impressions of Gotavaskas and specific findings as to competence,” Supreme Court documents say.
“The court admitted the non-redacted portions of the report and excluded the redacted ones, finding the portions it chose to redact to be ‘less relevant’ to a finding of competency than the non-redacted portions.”
The state objected to the judge’s decision.
Competency is a fluid legal concept, as evidenced by the fact that, in early 2014, Cotton again examined Gotavaskas and this time found him incompetent to stand trial. As before, the state and defense argued about about how much of the doctor’s report should be admitted into evidence.
Around the same time, a disagreement arose in connection with another Windham County defendant, Grant Bercik, who had been charged with simple assault and had been found incompetent to stand trial by Dr. Jonathan Weker, a Montpelier psychiatrist.
Both Gotavaskas and Bercik ended up in the care of the Vermont Department of Mental Health on orders of non-hospitalization, which allow an individual to live in the community while following a state-determined treatment plan.
But the fate of the reports that had established both defendants’ incompetence remained unresolved until July 2014, when Suntag issued a ruling allowing the redaction of certain portions of the documents.
The judge’s decision was intended to balance the privacy interests of the defendants with the public’s interest in understanding why the suspects had been declared incompetent.
While Suntag ruled that a psychiatric evaluator’s “impressions of the defendant and specific findings as to competence” cannot be sealed, he decided that “personal history, past diagnoses, medical and substance-abuse history and observations regarding criminal responsibility, for example, may not be closely related enough to competency to require release to the public.”
Expectation of public access
The state Supreme Court finds fault with that logic.
A majority opinion authored by Associate Justice Harold Eaton notes that, according to Vermont law, the “relevant portions of a psychiatrist’s report shall be admitted into evidence as an exhibit on the issue of the person’s mental competency to stand trial.”
And with admission into evidence comes the expectation, in most instances, of public access to those records — a concept repeatedly underlined by the Supreme Court in its decision.
“This court has long recognized the public’s interest in access to information upon which judicial decisions are made, an access necessary for the maintenance of public confidence in the judiciary,” the majority opinion says.
The presumption of public access is “deep-rooted,” the court wrote, and is “especially critical [...] at the junction of our criminal and mental-health statutes, where both the mental health of the defendant and public safety concerns are to be considered.”
In the Gotavaskas and Bercik cases, the court notes that no outside entity objected to redacting portions of the competency reports. But the justices nonetheless found that “there is a public interest at stake,” and they decided that Gartenstein had standing to raise concerns about public documents.
“In this respect, it may fall upon the prosecutor to represent the public’s right of access to the decision-making process, which might otherwise go unrepresented, especially in cases such as those where the media or the general public may be unaware of the competency issues,” the opinion says.
The court’s decision hinges on the meaning of the word “relevant.”
The question tackled by the justices boils down to this: Should mental-health privacy concerns dictate a narrower definition of what is “relevant” — and, therefore, what is admitted into evidence and considered a public record?
In this case, the court says no. Vermont law “does not create hierarchies of relevance or provide the trial court with discretion to exclude relevant portions of competency reports,” justices wrote.
While there are instances where relevant sections of a competency report can be redacted for “good cause” and “exceptional circumstances,” the justices wrote, “no findings approaching that which would be necessary to redact portions of any report [...] were made in either of the defendants’ cases.”
Given that, “it is necessary to remand these cases so that the proper findings may be made,” the majority decision says.
A dissenting opinion
The appeals court’s decision was not unanimous: A dissenting opinion from Associate Justice Marilyn Skoglund argues that, “while there may be a valid public interest in this case, it does not trump a trial judge’s careful exercise of discretion in admitting into evidence only the relevant portions of a competency evaluation.”
“At times,” Skoglund wrote, “sensitive information must be carefully handled.”
A decision about a criminal suspect’s competency is clearly “in the public’s sphere of interest,” she acknowledged. “However, I posit that the public does not have a legitimate interest in an incompetent defendant’s early childhood education, his family’s medical and psychological history and any history of abuse or neglect,” she wrote. “Nor would such information tend to show a defendant’s competency is more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”
“And I stress that everything the public finds interesting is not necessarily in the public interest as that concept is understood in the legal community,” Skoglund added.