A five-year legal battle over the state’s mental health system might be nearing an end after a hearing Thursday.
U.S. Judge Carlton Reeves heard arguments from both the state and the U.S. Department of Justice in the 2016 lawsuit over the state’s over reliance on institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill and could be issuing a final order shortly.
He reminded both parties that until there is a final order, they can solve the issue between themselves via negotiation. The state also has the option of appealing any verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
There might be little, if any room for compromise as both sides seem in their briefs and arguments to be firm in their convictions.
Both sides agree in separate filings on a choice of monitor — the court-appointed special master Dr. Michael Hogan — to ensure the state transitions from warehousing the seriously mentally ill at the state’s psychiatric hospitals to a more community-based model that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Where they diverge, both in briefs and in arguments Thursday, on what the special monitor’s duties should be, whether he should have a staff and who pays the bills. The federal government wants the state to pay for the costs of the monitor, while the state wants to split the costs.
Attorneys for the state said in its brief that the monitor's powers should be limited only to reporting to the court whether it has met the objective criteria of Hogan’s remedial plan. The state doesn’t want him to be able to conduct investigations that include interviewing mental health officials, patients and families, hold hearings or take evidence.
The DOJ in its filing said it wants the opposite, with Hogan assisted by a staff and able to conduct inquiries into whether the state is compliant. The special master would be appointed for a three-year term that can be renewed with the court.
The original lawsuit by the DOJ, which was filed in 2016, alleges that Mississippi depends too much on segregated state hospital settings versus community-based alternatives.
Judge Reeves in his July 15 order said that Hogan's proposal was “careful and modest” and the improvements could come without a net cost to the state. According to the order, a similar case involving Alabama's mental health system resulted in its budget increasing from $16 million to $86 million (1970s dollars).
The federal government says the state's mental health system violates the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C., in which the court says individuals with mental disabilities have the right to live in the community under the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than be institutionalized.
The Department of Justice commenced an investigation in 2011 and sent a findings letter to then-Gov. Haley Barbour. The state and the DOJ attempted to negotiate a solution acceptable to both sides, but the DOJ later filed a lawsuit against the state on August 11, 2016 in U.S. District Court.
The federal government won on September 3, 2019 in a bench trial conducted by Reeves. Reeves ruled in favor of the federal government and designated a special master, Hogan, to help the court draft a remedial plan.