An experienced lawyer talks about how therapeutic jurisprudence improves justice…

Before becoming a professor, Michael Perlin was the Deputy Public Defender in charge of the Mercer County Trial Region in New Jersey, and, for eight years, was the director of the Division of Mental Health Advocacy in the NJ Department of the Public Advocate.

Michael has represented thousands of persons with mental disabilities in individual and class actions, and has represented criminal defendants at every level from police court to the US Supreme Court (second-seating Strickland v. Washington (establishing adequacy of counsel standard in criminal cases), and representing amicus in Ake v. Oklahoma (right to expert witness in insanity cases), and Colorado v. Connelly (voluntariness of confession case)).

In legal circles, among his most famous clients were John Rennie (Rennie v. Klein established a qualified right to refuse medication for involuntary patients in psychiatric hospitals), Stefan Krol (State of NJ v Krol  found that insanity acquittees had the same rights to release hearings as did civil patients), and Hetra Fields (State of NJ v. Fields established that such acquittees had the same rights to periodic review hearings as did civil patients).

Last year Michael Perlin had the honour of observing therapeutic jurisprudence in action in New Zealand, this is what he saw…

I leave Auckland, New Zealand, having spent an extraordinary two weeks here.  I did some wonderful nature sightseeing (lists of the species of endemic and endangered birds that I saw are available to anyone interested), saw many of my best friends in the world, lectured to Professor Warren Brookbanks’ criminal law course on insanity defense myths, presented a seminar on the need for a Disability Rights Tribunal in Asia and the Pacific (along with my good friend Yoshi Ikehara) at a Human Rights Commission seminar, and spent two days – and was one of the keynoters (along with David Wexler and others) — at one of the very best conferences I have ever attended in my career: the Aotearoa Conference on TJ, at the University of Auckland, co-chaired by Warren and Katey Thom (and it was magnificent).

But I am doing this blog post to share my experiences in three days of court observations: of the youth court, the homelessness court, and the drug court, that I attended over an 8 day period.

Simply put, I have never, in such a short period of time, had the honor to observe such examples of therapeutic jurisprudence in action.  In my entire career as a lawyer – spanning over 40 years, practicing in NJ and NY – I have only seen a handful of judges that ran their courtroom with the level of dignity that I observed and that showed the defendants and all others who came before them the level of respect that I saw here.

The judges – Judge Hemi Taumaunu in the youth court (held at the marae, a Maori meeting house), Judge Tony Fitzgerald in the homelessness (“new beginning”) court, and Judge Fitzgerald and Judge Lisa Tremewan in the drug court – were, there is no other word for it, spectacular.

They knew every aspect of each case. They consulted with the court coordinating teams, defendants’ lawyers, police prosecutors, family members, advocates and others in thoughtful, integrative ways that left me agape.

Maori practices were integrated seamlessly into each of the court sessions (including the performance of the traditional haka dance, to help celebrate the drug court graduation of one of the persons before Judges Fitzgerald and Tremewan, something I will never forget). I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the pōwhiri ceremony, both at the beginning of youth court and later, at the beginning of the TJ conference, sang along with the waita that opened the court proceedings, and joined in the karakia, the closing prayers. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever.

And yes, I did shed tears in the courtrooms, when I saw the “before and after” pictures of some of the drug court defendants, when Judge Fitzgerald was kind enough to ask me to participate in a ceremony in which several of the defendants before him were given certificates of progress (and, as a bonus, vouchers which allowed them to make purchases at the local mall!), and when I realized that these courts were the fruition of what we in the TJ community have been working towards for 25 years.

Although only the homelessness court was actually called a “new beginnings” court (Te Kooti O Timatanga Hon), all of the courts were dedicated to giving those before it –ranging from 14 year olds to persons in their 60s – new beginnings. The court has been evaluated as reducing reoffending, cost of imprisonment and improving health.

I was so honored to be a part of it, and am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend this amazing time in New Zealand.

Kia ora to all.

Michael L. Perlin, Esq. Professor Emeritus of Law. Founding Director, International Mental Disability Law Reform Project. New York Law School

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