Federal Judge Invokes Supremacy Clause to Stop Efforts by County Judges to Keep Patients in Oregon State Hospital

Marion County judges had defied the locked psychiatric hospital’s new early release policies.

Today, a federal judge in Portland invoked the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution to force the release of mentally ill inmates from the state’s locked psychiatric hospital.

Last year, that judge, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman, ordered Oregon State Hospital to limit the time it held criminally charged patients who were sent there for treatment because they were too mentally ill to stand trial.

The result—patients being discharged early—frustrated county judges, who believed some needed longer periods of treatment. In some cases, they ordered patients to be held at the hospital past Mosman’s early release deadlines.

Disability Rights Oregon, which originally sued the state in an effort to get people with mental illness out of jails and into the state hospital, cried foul, asking Mosman to “order Marion County judges and municipal officials to cease obstruction of this Court’s order” in a legal filing last month. “The continued wrongful placement of detainees who should according to this Court’s orders be released has increased the delays in turning over hospital beds.”

That set up a constitutional battle between federal and state judges. And today, Mosman took a stand. The Marion County judges had been “prohibiting the release of detainees for the purpose of thwarting those orders,” he wrote.

That, Mosman says, is unacceptable. “Orders issued by state court judges in Marion County prohibiting the release of detainees held at Oregon State Hospital for restoration purposes are void under the Supremacy Clause,” he ordered.

The supremacy clause, in Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, gives federal law precedence over state law when the two conflict.

“It’s shameful and embarrassing that Marion County chose to ignore a federal court order for months,” Disability Rights Oregon’s Deputy Legal Director Tom Stenson said in a statement to WW following the decision. “Oregon’s behavioral health system is struggling after decades of inadequate investment, and people in crisis are paying a heavy price. All parties have worked together for months to find solutions and, with the state hospital now in compliance, it’s beginning to work.”

As of early August, there were seven patients from Marion County held in Oregon State Hospital beyond Mosman’s limits, most of which were soon slated to leave, according to an affidavit filed by county officials.

The reason they haven’t left already: a lack of community facilities willing to take them. In all seven cases, OSH officials had indicated that the patients needed some sort of residential care, which was largely unavailable due to a lack of beds, according to a county health supervisor, Debra Wells.

“It is disheartening that out-of-county advocates are seeking to force our residents out of the care they require,” she wrote.

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