Wyatt v. Stickney - the first case to find (40 years ago) a constitutional right to treatment for persons institutionalized because of mental disability - is the most important institutional rights case litigated in the history of domestic mental disability law. It spawned “copycat” litigation in multiple federal district courts and state superior courts, led directly to the creation of “Patients’ Bills of Rights” in most states, and inspired the creation of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, the Mental Health Systems Act Bill of Rights, and the federally-funded Protection and Advocacy System. 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, 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 law journals.
But 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]). In this article, I begin a preliminary exploration of that influence, concluding:
• Although Wyatt has not been cited in foreign cases, respected commentators have articulated its importance.
• A study of important cases from the European Court of Human Rights (and other regional human rights tribunals) reveals its impact – both on holdings and on court reasoning.
• Relevant sections of the CRPD have been drawn, nearly verbatim, from Wyatt’s holdings and the institutional standards mandated by subsequent Wyatt orders.
• 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.
This paper proceeds in this manner. First, I discuss the influence of Wyatt on domestic mental disability law, both in the context of caselaw and judicial opinions, as well as its sociopolitical influence. Next, I briefly trace the development of institutional mental disability rights law abroad, from the period prior to the publication of the UN Mental Illness Principles, to the period following publication of that document, to the period following the ratification of the CRPD. I 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. Although Wyatt is cited less and less by US courts in the current era, it remains the inspiration for the most profound international human rights advances worldwide.
Law & Psychology Review, Vol. 35, pp. 121-142