Court Refines Law on Disabilities in One of Three Major Rulings, Court Forces a Shift out of Hospitals

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Court Refines Law on Disabilities in One of Three Major Rulings, Court Forces a Shift out of Hospitals


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In a major victory for mentally disabled Americans, the US Supreme Court has ruled that mentally disabled residents of a Georgia state hospital have a right to receive their special state-funded programs and services outside hospital walls and fences.

In a 6-to-3 ruling, the high court said June 22 that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) empowers mentally retarded residents of state mental hospitals to sue for immediate placement in community-based programs funded by the state.

The ruling will accelerate the trend - evident since the 1960s - of moving mentally retarded residents from state hospitals into community-based settings. The justices said the failure of state mental-health officials to provide immediate placement in community-based programs amounted to a form of discrimination under the ADA. "States are required to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when the state's treatment professionals determine that such placement is appropriate," writes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. But the court narrowed its decision by stating that judges assessing such cases must also take into account the resources available to the state. Advocates for the mentally disabled hailed the ruling as a significant breakthrough in helping to fully integrate persons diagnosed with mental retardation into mainstream American life. They argued that it was a form of illegal segregation to force mentally disabled persons into state mental hospitals as the only way to receive programs and services that could just as easily be offered in community settings. "This case is critical to people with mental disabilities ... because it establishes the principle that they must be given services in the most intimate of possible settings," says Chai Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown University here. Georgia officials countered during arguments in the case that it should be left to the state to decide where publicly funded treatment programs will be located. …

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