Pinal County Board of Supervisors v. Georgini ex rel T.J. – 9/18/2014

October 14, 2014

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds That Mental Health Patients Seeking Restoration of Firearms Rights Are Not Entitled to Counsel at Public Expense.

Patient T.J. received court-ordered inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment after being adjudged a danger to herself or persistently or acutely disabled in September 2010.  She was discharged from treatment by operation of law one year later and shortly thereafter filed a petition pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-925 to have her right to possess firearms restored.  The respondent judge found T.J. indigent and appointed the Pinal County Public Defender (“PCPD”) to represent her, and approved an expert evaluation at public expense. 

In April 2013 the PCPD filed a new petition for restoration of firearms rights, to which the State objected on the grounds that PCPD should not represent T.J. in the civil action.  The State filed a special action, and the Pinal County Board of Supervisors substituted as petitioner to advance the same position as the State.

The Arizona Court of Appeals accepted jurisdiction and granted relief.  Although A.R.S. § 11-584(A)(3) requires appointment of counsel for certain “mental disorder hearings” the enumerated categories of hearings relate only to court-ordered evaluations, treatment, and release, not firearms restoration. 

Noting that § 11-584(A)(10) allows appointed counsel for other proceedings where the party is entitled to counsel as a matter of law, the Court went on to evaluate whether constitutional due process protections require taxpayer-funded counsel for firearms restoration petitions.  The Court found that restoration of firearms rights is a limited, state-created liberty interest, but also found that the restoration process under § 13-925 is not the kind of complex “full-blown adversary hearing” which requires assistance of counsel, and the provision of counsel would not reduce the risk of error in what is essentially a “predictive” exercise.  The Court, therefore, concluded that T.J. is not entitled to counsel as a matter of law, and although the superior court has discretion to appoint counsel, the county cannot be made to pay for it.

Presiding Judge Miller authored the opinion; Chief Judge Eckerstrom and Judge Vásquez concurred.