Judge rules against Marion County over Oregon State Hospital patients, but county fights back

Marion County judges have tried to bypass a federal court order in a dispute about treating suspects in the Oregon State Hospital.

But on Monday, the federal judge involved in the case lashed back, saying that, according to the U.S. Constitution, federal courts are higher than local courts and thus their orders can’t be ignored. 

The case involves patients accused of crimes who need mental health treatment to stand trial. U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman in Portland has issued deadlines on when these patients need to be released from the Oregon State Hospital to ease overcrowding – which Marion County judges have tried to override with their own rulings to keep patients in the hospital. 

And they are not giving up. On Tuesday, Marion County officials announced they were suing the state hospital and the Oregon Health Authority, which runs the facility, to ensure the suspects are treated. The lawsuit, which did not appear late Tuesday on the courts public website, seeks a court order to force the state to provide the necessary staff, resources and facilities to treat defendants with hospital care, as required by state law, county officials said in a press release.

“This action is not something that we take lightly,” County Commissioner Colm Willis said in a statement. “We have been trying to solve these issues for a long time. The state needs to fulfill their responsibilities to the individuals needing critical treatment and to the citizens that are paying taxes for them to do the job that the law says is their responsibility.”

An Oregon State Hospital spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The dispute stems from a 2002 lawsuit by a disability group, Disability Rights Oregon, to have these patients admitted quickly to the Oregon State Hospital. The federal court resolved that by saying they had to be admitted within seven days of a judicial order, but the lawsuit continued when the state hospital would not comply. 

At stake is judicial authority, Oregon’s lack of mental health resources and hundreds of patients. In the past, defendants sometimes sat in jail cells for months waiting to be transferred to Oregon State Hospital for treatment to face charges. Oregon’s mental health system lacks staff to treat people in residential facilities, prompting the Legislature to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars for the hospital and mental health care.

Last September, Mosman said these patients could be treated at the state hospital for up to three months for misdemeanors, nine months for nonviolent felonies and 12 months for violent felonies. After that, they’re supposed to return to their communities under the assumption that they have improved enough to assist in their own defense. These are called aid-and-assist patients because the courts consider that they are not mentally competent to stand trial without treatment. 

But Marion County judges have blocked the timely release of some patients, and Marion County Sheriff’s officials have declined to transport them from the hospital, despite Mosman’s order. Oregon State Hospital’s main campus is in Salem, and Marion County officials have jurisdiction over cases in their county.

In his ruling on Monday, Mosman wrote that these orders from Marion County judges are “void” when the patients are eligible for release under his order because under the U.S. Constitution, federal law takes precedence over state or local law. 

Tom Stenson, deputy legal director of Disability Rights Oregon, said his organization was happy with that decision. 

“It’s really kind of shameful and embarrassing for state courts to just flout a federal court order that way,” he told the Capital Chronicle. 

He said the other courts in Oregon’s 36 counties have complied with the federal order and that he was puzzled about why Marion County judges did not. Mosman recently softened the discharge deadlines to grant some exceptions.

The Oregon State Hospital, with a nearly $400 million a year budget, had about 690 patients each day in June, filling most of the 700 available beds in Salem and a satellite campus in Junction City, public records obtained by the Capital Chronicle show. Those patients are primarily aid-and-assist cases. The hospital also treats people who are found guilty except for insanity and those who are civilly committed. 

Stenson said previous overcrowding at the hospital has improved following Mosman’s orders. 

“We’re now back to where we ought to be,” Stenson said. “The hospital is hitting the constitutional standard of getting people moved from jail cells to the hospital within a week. Things are really flowing and people are moving back and forth.” 

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.