Washington v. Harper (1990)

United States Supreme Court

494 U.S. 210

Nature of Case

Whether it is constitutionally required to provide a judicial hearing prior to the involuntary administration of medication to an inmate.

Facts of Case

Walter Harper was convicted of robbery in 1976. He was imprisoned in the Washington state prison system from 1976 to 1980, and was granted parole in 1980. His parole was revoked in December 1981. While temporarily on parole, he voluntarily consented to receive antipsychotic medication to treat “manic-depressive disorder.” When he discontinued use of his medication, his mental condition deteriorated and he engaged in violent behavior. He was transferred to a facility for convicted felons with mental disorder on two occasions. While at the facility he was involuntarily administered antipsychotic medications. The facility had procedures set in place for the involuntary medication of prisoners, and the facility complied with the procedures as written. Harper filed suit during his second stay at the facility, claiming that failure to provide a judicial hearing before involuntary administration of the medication violated his due process rights. The trial court rejected Harper’s claim. Washington’s State Supreme Court then reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that a judicial hearing was necessary and the State needed to prove by “clear, cogent, and convincing” evidence that the medication was necessary and effective in order to medicate a competent, non-consenting inmate. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did the Supreme Court of Washington err in declaring a Washington state policy unconstitutional because it did not provide a judicial hearing for inmates prior to administration of involuntary medication?



In a unanimous decision, the Court reversed the decision of the Supreme Court of Washington. In an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the state court erred in ruling the state procedure unconstitutional, because the procedures in place for involuntary administration of medication did not deprive inmates of due process. The Court recognized that inmates had a 14th amendment right to refuse treatment, but believed the state had balanced the inmates’ rights and the state’s interests by allowing inmates to request a hearing before a committee to review the medication decision. The policy required the following criteria to be met:

  1. A psychiatrist needed to determine a prisoner needed antipsychotic medication. If the prisoner did not consent to the medication, the prisoner was entitled to a hearing with a psychiatrist, psychologist, and associate superintendent (none of whom could be involved in the inmate’s treatment or diagnosis).
  2. Involuntary medication had to be determined by the majority vote with the psychiatrist in the majority. The prisoner had to be diagnosed with a mental disorder and also be gravely disabled, or dangerous to self or others.
  3. The prisoner had the right to be notified of the hearing, was allowed to attend the hearing, present evidence, present witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, be assisted by a lay adviser, and appeal the decision and seek judicial review. The prisoner was also entitled to periodic review and to have a new hearing every 180 days.

The Court reversed the Washington state court decision and remanded the case for further proceedings in accordance with the Court’s findings.


The Court concluded that due process does not require a judicial hearing for the involuntary treatment of prison inmates, and the state’s regulation contained adequate procedural safe guards to protect the prisoner’s rights and balance the state’s interests in decreasing risk of danger due to the prisoner’s mental disorder. The Court said that the State does not first have to find the inmate incompetent. The Court determined that an administrative hearing met the 14th Amendment due process requirements and the other aspects of the regulation also met due process standards.