Court: Mental health officials can’t ‘second guess’ judges

Published 12:31 pm Saturday, August 18, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court says the state Department of Mental Health can’t refuse a judge’s order committing patients, even if the department disagrees that a state mental hospital is the right place for a patient.

The court ruled unanimously Thursday that mental health officials can’t “second guess” judges, although it overturned a contempt ruling against the director of South Mississippi State Hospital.

The case arises out of a 2017 dispute involving Lamar County Chancery Judge Deborah Gambrell’s ruling ratifying a special master’s commitment of two patients to the Ellisville mental hospital.

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Mental health officials said they didn’t want to take the patients because they needed drug and alcohol treatment that the hospital didn’t offer. Hospital Director Sabrina Young argued that part of state law gave her the authority to refuse to accept patients “until the director of the admitting institution determines that facilities and services are available.”

The two patients were released when Young made that decision, but Gambrell held Young in contempt, fining her $1,400 and prompting further litigation that led to the high court.

Justice David Ishee, writing for the court, said justices have previously ruled this section of state law could only be used to prevent overcrowding, rejecting an argument that it could extend to rejecting patients because services weren’t available.

The chancery court’s determination on the necessity of treatment for mental illness, however wrong it theoretically may have been, was its ruling nonetheless,” Ishee wrote. “And it was entitled to the full force of law. Young and SMSH were not at liberty to second guess the chancery court.”

The judge, though, ruled that the court acted improperly in its contempt ruling, saying that the nature of its sanction against Young was criminal contempt, and that the special master didn’t follow the correct procedures to make such a ruling. The court sent the case back to Lamar County directing the special master to recuse himself from any further contempt proceedings.

The Department of Mental Health did not respond to a request for comment Friday.