Colette Hughes is a San Francisco-based patient's rights lawyer who represented Eleanor Riese in the groundbreaking RIESE VS. ST. MARY'S HOSPITAL trial, as portrayed by Hilary Swank in the movie 55 STEPS.
Colette began her human rights work in 1962 at age eight. Alongside her father, she went door to door for months, finally ending the opposition of enough neighbors so that the small residential care home in the neighborhood could open and the developmentally disabled residents could move in.
At age fifteen, with the help of the Detroit ACLU, Colette argued the civil rights case against the local school board on behalf of herself and other students, ending the longstanding unconstitutional practices of improper search and seizure of students’ lockers, censorship of the student newspaper to prevent articles opposing the war in Vietnam, and the removal of reading materials from the library, including writings of Thoreau and the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
After becoming a nurse, Colette moved to San Francisco in the 70s, where she worked with the Gray Panthers, helping elders facing eviction and other abuses. As a result of her efforts in Bracco v. Lackner (challenging the precipitous, involuntary, life-threatening relocation of long-term nursing home residents), the U.S. House of Representatives convened an unprecedented nationally televised committee hearing at the Post Street Nursing Home in San Francisco, permitting the residents to be heard directly on their rights to remain near family and friends, and to be protected from “relocation shock.”
Colette then went to law school and opened a private practice in 1983, focusing on the rights of people with psychiatric labels. For the next 20 years she held positions of public trust. She was appointed to the California Senate Subcommittee Task Force on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Genetic Diseases. She also served as Administrator of the Patients’ Rights Advocacy Office for the County of San Mateo and as Supervising Attorney of the Investigations Unit for the California Protection and Advocacy System. Investigations led to the release of over 15 public reports, which were used to implement statewide reforms to prevent medication and physical restraint-related deaths and the unnecessary use of lethal force by police officers during the commitment process.
Colette was co-counsel in Riese v. St. Mary’s Hospital, which established for the first time the right of civil detainees on short-term psychiatric holds to give or withhold informed consent to psychotropic medications, absent a judicial determination of incompetence or a narrow emergency exception to prevent imminent physical harm. In 1989, she successfully challenged the imposition by local zoning officials of a special use permit that would have resulted in the imminent eviction of 11 Vietnam-era veterans from a residential facility in Berkeley. This was the first known antidiscrimination case brought on behalf of residents with psychiatric disabilities pursuant to the then-new Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.
Colette’s lawyering in the Riese case is explored in the film 55 Steps. Directed by Bille August and written and co-produced by Mark Bruce Rosin, it stars Helena Bonham Carter as Eleanor Riese, Jeffrey Tambor as Professor Mort Cohen and Hilary Swank as Colette Hughes. More than 30 years later, Colette continues to field requests from individuals who want to avoid forcible medication and other intrusive psychiatric interventions.