Heller v. Doe (1993)

United States Supreme Court

509 U.S. 312

Nature of Case

Whether it is unconstitutional, according to the Equal Protection Clause, of the 14th Amendment to have differing involuntary commitment criteria for the mentally retarded and mentally ill.

Facts of Case

In 1982 an action was filed on behalf of mentally retarded individuals who were civilly committed to Kentucky institutions. They alleged that their Constitutional rights were violated because they were not provided certain procedural protections under Kentucky statute. Kentucky amended its statute numerous times, but each revision was attacked by the group. In 1990, Kentucky’s revised statute included that the burden of proof for civilly committing someone on the basis of mental illness was beyond a reasonable doubt, and it was a clear and convincing burden for those with mental retardation. Additionally, guardians and immediate family members were allowed to participate as if they were parties in the commitment cases for the mentally retarded, but this was not allowed for those with mental illness.

The District Court granted a partial summary judgment in favor of the group of committed patients, stating that the differences in the burden of proof for the two groups violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause, because the distinction was not rational. The court also determined that the participation by guardians and family members also violated the equal protection and due process clauses under the 14th Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court then heard the case to evaluate whether the Kentucky statute was unconstitutional based on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process.


Did the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit err in affirming the district court’s judgment, which determined the Kentucky civil commitment statute was unconstitutional because it violated equal protection and due process?



In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court reversed the decision of the appellate court, and found the Kentucky statute did not violate equal protection or due process rights of the mentally retarded.


The Court concluded that mental retardation is a developmental disability which is diagnosed early on in life and is a permanent condition; therefore, there is more evidence of the existence of disorder, and it is more easily and accurately diagnosed. They argued mental illness manifests later in life and can have a fluctuating course; therefore, it is more difficult to diagnose. Additionally, the Court stated that treatments for the mentally regarded are, on average, less intrusive than those for the mentally ill. Because of these differences, the Court concluded it was rational to have a higher burden of proof for the civil commitment of the mentally ill as compared to the mentally retarded. The Court also concluded that the guardians and parents ability to act as parties in the cases of the mentally retarded would be helpful because they could offer valuable insights, which would not be the case with the mentally ill.


O’Connor dissented in part, arguing that the varying standards of proof were irrational, but allowing guardians to participate in the proceedings had rational merit.

Souter, Blackmun, and Stevens said there was no rational justification for the difference in burden of proof, nor was there justification for the involvement of family members for one group and not the other.