The California Supreme Court ruled today that state officials illegally cut benefits ordered by the Legislature for 75,000 mentally retarded people during the 1982 budget crunch.
In a unanimous opinion, the court said fears by the Department of Developmental Services that it would run short of funds did not give the agency power to order spending cuts.
Justice Stanley Mosk, writing for the court, said that before ordering the cuts the department should have sought relief from the Legislature, which could have appropriated more funds or reduced other entitlements.
The department has a $275-million budget to provide training and housing for the state's retarded adults. The program is designed to allow the retarded people to live in a community setting rather than in large institutions.
Although the cuts were restored in an emergency appropriation by order of a lower court in 1983, the new ruling specifically limits the power of the department to make similar unilateral spending cuts.
Sacramento attorney Jay-Allen Eisen, who argued the case for the Assn. for Retarded Citizens in California, said the decision tells the Legislature "the hypocrisy" of creating a program but failing to back it with funds "won't work."
"I'm thrilled and delighted" with the ruling, said Eisen, who noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has not been as favorable in ruling on the rights of the retarded.
"This decision says, at least in California, they have the same legal rights as everybody else," Eisen said.