Navy Yard shooter a troubling warning against passage of Michigan’s secret mental health courts bill

Aaron Alexis, the dead gunman in the shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., had serious mental health issues. He was hearing voices, and he had several interactions previously with police in Washington state. And he was seeking help for his problems.

Twelve people, in what is likely one of the safest workplaces in the nation, were gunned down before police killed him. According to media reports, in half the fatal mass shootings in the U.S. in the past several years, the perpetrator had mental health problems.

The Michigan House is currently considering a series of bills that would create secret mental health courts within circuit courts to handle non-violent felonies committed by people with mental health issues.

Another Aaron Alexis could be among them, and though laudable on its face, it extends a dangerous precedent in Michigan. And that dangerous precedent is secrecy.

Under the bills as currently proposed, the public would never learn about the successes and failures of the secret court. The proposed legislation not only hides the initial information from the public but goes even further by hiding the data collected on its successes, its failures, its rate of recidivism.

No one, not even members of the House Judiciary Committee in the future, will be provided the data. The sole keeper of the information is the state supreme court administrator.

Michigan courts have historically operated under the principle and legal mandate of MCL 600.1420: “The sittings of every court within this state shall be public….” (Emphasis added.) MCL 600.1420; MSA 27A.1420. None of these exceptions covers the establishment of a secret mental health court system and would undermine the historic and fundamentally important role of the courts and of the people to observe what the courts do and how effectively they operate.

This proposed legislation, HB 4694-4697, may on its face appear to be a humane approach to dealing with criminal violations by the mentally ill. However, hiding from the citizens of Michigan and the executive and legislative branches of the State the operations of any facet of its court system violates separation of powers, violates established law, violates the public mandate to serve all the citizens of the state, reverses the historical transparency of the court system and threatens the public safety, health and welfare of the people of this state.

Call your state representative and state senator, and tell him/her Michigan’s courts should be kept open and transparent to the public they serve.

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