Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

"Abandoned Love": The Impact of Wyatt V. Stickney on the Intersection between International Human Rights and Domestic Mental Disability Law

Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

"Abandoned Love": The Impact of Wyatt V. Stickney on the Intersection between International Human Rights and Domestic Mental Disability Law

Article excerpt


Wyatt v. Stickney (1) is the most important institutional rights case litigated in the history of domestic mental disability law. (2) It spawned copycat litigation in multiple federal district courts and state superior courts; (3) it led directly to the creation of Patients' Bills of Rights in most states; (4) and it inspired the creation of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, (5) the Mental Health Systems Act Bill of Rights, (6) and the federally-funded Protection and Advocacy System. (7) Its direct influence on the development of the right-to-treatment doctrine abated after the Supreme Court's disinclination, in its 1982 decision in Youngberg v. Romeo, (8) to find that right to be constitutionally mandated, but its historic role as a beacon and inspiration has never truly faded. It has been cited (at least) an astounding 411 times in domestic law journals. (9)

However, little has been written about the influence of Wyatt on the intersection between international human rights and mental disability law, an intersection whose importance has grown exponentially since the ratification of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). (10) In this article, I begin a preliminary exploration of that influence, drawing four conclusions:

(1) Although Wyatt has not been cited in foreign cases, respected commentators have articulated its importance. (11)

(2) A study of important cases from international regional human rights tribunals reveals its impact, both on holdings and on court reasoning. (12)

(3) Relevant sections of the CRPD have been based on Wyatt's holdings and the institutional standards mandated by subsequent Wyatt orders. (13)

(4) It is not much of a reach to predict that, in another 40 years, Wyatt's influence on international human rights law will be seen as profound as (or as more profound than) its influence on domestic law.

I will first discuss the influence of Wyatt on domestic mental disability law in the context of case law and the sociopolitical environment. Next, I will briefly trace the development of institutional mental disability rights law abroad from the period prior to the publication of the UN Mental Illness Principles, (14) through the period following publication of that document, through the ratification of the CRPD to present. I will then show how Wyatt, although often in a sub silentio manner, has been the guiding force behind those international human rights law developments that mandate positive rights for institutionalized patients, especially in the context of the CRPD. Although Wyatt is cited less and less frequently by US courts in the current era, (15) it remains the inspiration for the most profound international human rights advances worldwide.

The first part of the title of this paper, Abandoned Love, comes from a lesser-known Bob Dylan song, first released in 1985 on Biograph. (16) In this "brilliant song," (17) Dylan sings, "Won't you let me in your room one time 'fore I finally disappear?," and, two verses later, "I march in the parade of liberty." (18) It is a song of "anger" and "relief," filed with "loss and yearning." (19) Wyatt v. Stickney may appear to have been "abandoned" by the US Supreme Court in its Youngberg decision, but, through the vehicle of the CRPD, we allow it to return to our "room" another time, in the guise of international human rights law, as part of the "parade of liberty." (20) For those of us inspired by Wyatt when we litigated in the 1970s, (21) the subsequent years have often been filled with anger and loss and yearning. The ratification of the CRPD, however, gives us a large measure of relief.


Writing about Wyatt some 13 years ago, I suggested that its ultimate legacy needed to be considered from four different perspectives: (1) further developments in the litigation itself; (2) Wyatt's ultimate impact on the delivery of mental disability services in Alabama; (3) Wyatt's impact on the development of statutory law elsewhere; and (4) Wyatt's impact on the development of constitutional law elsewhere. …

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