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Judge blasts Marion County’s use of Oregon State Hospital

Ruling suggests a federal jurist is tiring of local officials challenging his order placing time limits on stays in the Oregon State Hospital
Oregon State Hospital in Salem. | BEN BOTKIN/THE LUND REPORT
October 19, 2023

This story has been updated with comment from Marion County and Disability Rights Oregon. 

A federal judge on Tuesday issued a stinging rebuke to Marion County officials over their efforts to commit a defendant to the state psychiatric facility past a court-ordered limit.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled that state courts can’t recommit defendants back to the Oregon State Hospital on old charges if they’ve already reached their limit on how long they can stay at the Salem-based psychiatric facility.

The order is a setback for local officials who’ve chafed under Mosman’s sweeping September 2022 order that was intended to free up limited beds at the Salem-based psychiatric facility. And, significantly, the sharp wording used by Mosman — who all but questioned Marion County officials' morality and called their arguments “implausible” — suggests his patience is at an end with attempts to modify or skirt his order based on concerns about public safety and treatment adequacy.

“Many people involved in this system have come together and made significant sacrifices to make it work,” wrote Mosman. “These are serious-minded people passionate about their client’s interests. Yet they have sought the greater good, and it has led to some success. They include representatives from almost every other county in Oregon.

“It would be nice if Marion County would join them.”

Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson did not respond to a request for comment.  Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis responded with an emailed statement. 

“It’s unfortunate that Judge Mosman was so disrespectful of a Marion County Judge’s attempt to keep our community safe," he said. "At issue was the status of a patient who had escaped from the state hospital. Here in Marion County, the home of the state hospital, we feel the effects of these situations immediately. For Judge Mosman to dismiss such a serious question in such a flippant manner is disappointing to say the least.”

As home to the state hospital, Marion County has at times been the center of a decades-old legal case over patients’ rights, and the county is currently suing the state in a different court over its failure to provide adequate behavioral health treatment.

Prosecutors have criticized the timelines in Mosman’s order as arbitrary, arguing that the release of patients accused of crimes should be based on individual medical evaluations and public safety concerns. 

Advocates, however, have accused Marion County officials, judges and prosecutors of working together to skirt Mosman’s September 2022 ruling.

Disability Rights Oregon has speearheaded the litigation over the state hospital. The group's executive director and CEO, Jake Cornett,  responded on Wednesday with a brief statement: "Nothing in yesterday's Order surprised us."

Motion followed dispute over handling of one patient’s case

Mosman’s ruling came in response to a filing from lawyers for the state hospital in September asking the judge to clear up a dispute with Marion County Circuit Court over a defendant who escaped from the state hospital in 2020 after being sent there from Lane County. 

After escaping, the defendant was charged in September 2021 with a Measure 11 offense in Lane County. A court deemed the defendant unable to aid and assist in their own defense and ordered him to the state hospital for treatment so he could face charges. 

By January 2023, the defendant was discharged from the state hospital because he had been committed for 14 months, exceeding the six-month maximum limit on treatment established by Mosman. 

But in October 2021, prosecutors had filed charges against the defendant for escaping in 2020 during his stay in the state hospital. While a judge issued a warrant for his arrest at the time, it wasn’t until roughly two weeks after the defendant was released from the state hospital in January 2023 that he was arrested on the charge. 

A Marion County court again found the defendant was unable to participate in his defense and committed him to the state hospital. 

But this time, the state hospital’s attorneys told the Marion County judge and prosecutor that the defendant had already been committed too long. 

Lawyers for the state hospital argued in the filing that the defendant had met the maximum time he could receive treatment during his earlier commitment stemming from charges in Lane County. 

But Marion County Circuit Court disagreed and ordered the state hospital to “show cause” why it hadn’t admitted the defendant, a move that could have led to a contempt of court citation. 

Expert weighed in

In their filing asking Mosman to step in, state lawyers wrote that hospital administrators consulted with Dr. Debra Pinals, an expert hired by the state, who concluded that Marion County’s wasn’t bringing “new charges” against the defendant and admitting him “would constitute an impermissible consecutive period of restoration.”

Billy Williams, a former U.S. Attorney, representing three district attorneys, including in Marion County, filed a response brief last month that didn’t argue that Marion County Circuit Court was right to try and recommit the defendant. Instead, his filing stated that government entities are doing their best to comply with Mosman’s order as they balance competing rights and make the best use of the “overwhelmed mental health system resources.” 

He said “there will be ongoing multi-jurisdictional episodes of similar factual and legal scenarios” as the one in Marion County and asked Mosman for clarification on his previous order.

Williams further described in the filing the routine delays of the criminal justice system that slowed the arrest and commitment of the defendant, which he stated was made worse during the pandemic. 

“The facts underlying this question are emblematic of a host of challenges presented on a frequent basis,” reads Williams’ filing. “Added to the dilemma is the fact that the mental health system in Oregon is in crisis.”

Mosman responded in his Tuesday ruling that, “I think this answer is both obvious from the text and necessary from the context.” His previous directive is clear, he added: a defendant can’t be committed to the state hospital again unless they are charged with a new crime after being discharged.  

“Marion County is a little like someone showing up to a delivery truck where they are handing out free loaves of bread to people in need,” Mosman wrote. “When he first arrives, it looks like everyone will get a loaf to themselves. But then unexpectedly, a lot more people show up, and so now the loaves will need to be divided to feed everyone. But Marion County insists that it get its whole loaf, regardless of what that means to others.”

Mosman faulted Marion County for “coming up with implausible workarounds” that threatened “well-meaning, overworked public health workers” with contempt charges after being caught in the middle of conflicting state and federal court orders. 

The defendant at the center of the case, he added, “has reached the point where solid empirical evidence shows that the likely benefits of additional treatment are low.”

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.