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Rights group accuses Marion County judges of ‘obstructing’ state hospital discharges

In a new filing, Disability Rights Oregon says some judges and other officials are thwarting a federal court order intended to open up beds at the state psychiatric facility
Oregon State Hospital in Salem. | OREGON HEALTH AUTHORITY
August 10, 2023
This article has been updated with additional reporting and context.

Attorneys for Disability Rights Oregon are accusing officials in Marion County of forcing patients to stay in Oregon State Hospital longer than a federal court order allows — and want a judge to intervene. 

The advocacy group asked U.S. Judge Michael Mosman in a court filing Thursday to declare that his earlier order limiting how long patients accused of crimes can stay at the psychiatric facility overrides any conflicting order from a state judge. The filing specifically asks Mosman “to order the Marion County judges and municipal officials to cease obstruction.”

Mosman issued a sweeping order in September setting deadlines for how long the Oregon State Hospital could take to treat patients in order for them to be well enough to face charges. The order is intended to ease crowding at the state hospital and prevent defendants from being kept in jail without treatment. Prosecutors and others have criticized the order for releasing some patients too soon.  

The filing takes issue with several Marion County judges who ordered other officials to first seek their approval for the release of patients they earlier ordered to the state hospital. The language used by the judges is unusual, according to the filing. 

“Based on the immediate context and the lack of any other plausible rationale for prohibiting the release of detainees committed to the Oregon Health Authority, the state court orders seem specifically drafted to thwart the release of detainees from the Oregon State Hospital pursuant to this Court’s order,” reads the filing. 

Jake Cornett, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, told The Lund Report that the judge’s orders are “hyper unusual” and that no other state court has issued anything similar. 

Cornett said that as of Wednesday the orders are affecting three patients at the state hospital who have met the time limit. He said that number will increase if the Marion County judges’ orders are left in place.

Additionally, the filing criticized other Marion County officials, including the sheriff and the district attorney, for participating in actions “intended to thwart this Court’s remedial orders.”

Marion County officials have faced particular legal questions because the hospital is located within the county's jurisdiction. One of those problems came to light in March court filing, where a state hospital administrator noted that the Marion County Sheriff's Office was refusing to transport patients because of a conflicting state court order. 

Jane Vetto, Marion County counsel, told The Lund Report in an email that there is currently no federal order in place regarding transportation from the state hospital. She said that the county will review the filings from Disability Rights Oregon and respond in court.

District Attorney Paige Clarkson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Lund Report. 

The filing is the latest in a decades-old federal civil rights lawsuit over state hospital admissions. A federal court in 2003 ruled that the state hospital must admit within seven days people deemed to be unable to aid and assist in their own defense.  Litigation over admissions was reopened in recent years after the state hospital fell short of the earlier court ruling.

Local prosecutors as well as hospital systems earlier asked Mosman to modify his order, arguing that they hadn’t been properly consulted. The hospitals argued that they were being saddled with psychiatric patients who would receive better care at the state hospital. Prosecutors argued that patients were being released early to communities lacking mental health resources. 

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