Politics & Government

Judge quashes order for special master to oversee Western State Hospital reforms

The ruling from Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko says courts cannot dictate broad reforms to state mental health policy, but can act case by case
The ruling from Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko says courts cannot dictate broad reforms to state mental health policy, but can act case by case AP

While conceding “chronic” problems with the state’s mental-health system, a Pierce County judge Friday vacated an earlier ruling that would have required court-ordered oversight of reforms at Western State Hospital.

“It seems to me that the role of the court system is not to order system-wide reform,” Superior Court Judge Susan Serko said. “It needs to be a case-by-case basis.”

Barring an appeal, Serko’s ruling ends the latest chapter in a series of battles between the courts and the state over patient admissions and access to the state’s largest mental hospital.

A July 8 order by Court Commissioner Craig Adams appointed a special master to review admissions policies and end the practice of “psychiatric boarding” within six months.

Serko’s ruling means that process won’t take place.

Boarding refers to the practice of detaining people with mental illness in private hospitals or other facilities that don’t provide required treatment while patients wait for admission to the state hospital. In a unanimous decision, the Washington State Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional in 2014.

The latest legal skirmish started because boarding continues despite attempts to prevent it.

Attorneys representing 12 patients denied admission to Western State contended that patients detained against their will in private hospitals weren’t receiving the individual mental-health treatment guaranteed by law. Hospital leaders blamed lack of funding and resources.

Friday, Assistant Attorney General Robert Antanaitis argued that Adams’ order — a ruling that followed a finding of contempt against the state — exceeded the court’s authority. He added that all but one of the 12 patients in the case had been admitted to Western State or facilities certified to provide required treatment.

Solutions, he said, were best left to a legislative group tasked with developing a long-term plan.

Antanaitis admitted that monetary penalties and other sanctions could be appropriate remedies in cases involving individual patients, but, he said, a systemic solution as proposed by Adams was too far-reaching.

Attorneys representing the patients and the Washington State Hospital Association said the state and its leaders have grown so accustomed to papering over problems at Western State that they’ve lost touch with ground-level realities and the interests of patients who have committed no crimes.

“These are people who had their liberty taken away for weeks or months,” said Eric Nieman, speaking for the association. “To say now they’re free of the system ... doesn’t solve the continuing problem. There is no plan to stop what is a systematic violation of individual rights.

“We have an entire class of citizens who have had their freedom taken away for no reason other than because of who they are.”

Attorney Alex Kirigin, representing patients, said his clients faced, “a severe curtailment of civil liberties, through a function of who these people are, not what they’ve done. This has been going on for years.”

Before issuing her ruling, Serko praised Nieman and Kirigin for the passion of their advocacy; but she returned to the limits of court authority in the context of the earlier order from Adams.

“These actions in my opinion are beyond the authority of a mental health commissioner, and they’re beyond the authority of a Superior Court trial judge,” she said. “The mental health commissioner should exercise discretion to implement remedies on a case-by-case basis.”

After the hearing, Nieman said it was too soon to say whether the hospital association or attorneys for the patients would appeal Serko’s decision.