Mississippi seeks to derail federal suits over mental health

Legal Analysis

The U.S. Justice Department overreached in suing Mississippi over its mental health system, the state’s solicitor general has argued to a federal appeals court.

A Justice Department attorney countered that there’s ample precedent to show the department has the power to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday in New Orleans. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported that judges on the conservative court appeared receptive to limiting the Justice Department’s role.

A ruling against the department could ultimately push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could have nationwide implications.

The federal government issued a letter in 2011 saying Mississippi had done too little to provide mental health services outside mental hospitals. The Justice Department sued Mississippi in 2016.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled in 2019 that Mississippi had violated the ADA by having inadequate resources in communities to treat people with mental illnesses.

Evidence showed people were repeatedly admitted to state hospitals for lengthy stays, only to later return to the hospitals without long-term improvement.

Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart — the same attorney who argued an abortion case before the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade — told the appeals panel Wednesday that since Reeves’ ruling, the state has improved its mental health system. Stewart said limiting the federal government’s ability to intervene is important because lawsuits can cost states thousands of dollars.

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