SEATTLE – A lawyer for the state health services department has asked a federal judge to clarify or reconsider portions of her sweeping ruling that found that the state’s practice of holding mentally ill people in jails for weeks or months while they await competency services was unconstitutional.
Following a two-week trial, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said April 2 that Washington was violating the rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens and issued a permanent injunction against the state. That ruling requires Washington to provide services within a week of a judge’s order for a competency evaluation or treatment.
Assistant Attorney General John McIlhenny, representing the state Department of Social and Health Services, filed a motion Thursday asking Pechman to clarify some points of the judge’s ruling – including when the clock starts on the seven-day timeline.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington filed a class-action lawsuit seeking relief for hundreds of mentally ill people who were forced to wait in jails for extended periods due to a lack of bed space and staff at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals.
Pechman found in their favor and set strict guidelines for the state to follow. She also said a monitor was needed to ensure the state complies with her order.
Pechman’s ruling was the third time in recent years that a court has stepped in and told the state that it is failing to provide necessary services adequately. The Washington Supreme Court has found that the state has failed to fund its education system fully, and last year the justices also said the state can no longer strap mentally ill people in hospital beds without providing treatment.
One clarification needed, McIlhenny said, was when the seven-day deadline begins. The order does not clearly say whether the seven-day period starts when a state judge signs an order for a competency evaluation or once the department receives that order, he said.
The court has already ruled the department cannot begin providing services “without receipt of necessary information,” McIlhenny said. Some courts can take days or more to send out their orders, he said.
“The department should not be punished for failing to provide services as to orders it has not even received,” he said.
McIlhenny also sought to ensure the department is not violating the order if a person who needs medical treatment is not moved to the psychiatric hospital for an evaluation within the seven-day time period.
Another problem with meeting the seven-day deadline, McIlhenny said, is lawyers.
If a person scheduled to be evaluated asks to have his lawyer present and that lawyer is not available within the seven days, it could cause a delay, he said. McIlhenny asked the judge for guidance in these situations.
The judge’s order goes into effect nine months from the date of her order, or Jan. 2.
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