A retired California appellate justice will consider the complex constitutional and procedural issues involved in a suit challenging the county’s Oct. 1 mental health service cuts, a San Diego County Superior Court judge ruled Monday.
Judge Robert E. May said he will turn the hundreds of pages of documents filed by Legal Aid Society lawyers and the county over to Robert O. Staniforth, who retired from the 4th District Court of Appeal in 1986 at the age of 70. Operating as a court-appointed referee in the case, Staniforth will make recommendations on how May should rule.
May gave Staniforth up to three weeks to complete his review and ordered the county to pay a $1,500 deposit against the final costs for calling Staniforth in. The Legal Aid Society of San Diego was required to pay $75. However, a final decision on who will pay the $250-an-hour fee for the referee procedure will be made later, May said.
Legal Aid filed the class-action lawsuit Aug. 30 on behalf of mental health clients who expected to have their services cut as a result of $3.2 million in cutbacks in the county’s mental health spending. An earlier request for an order delaying the cuts was denied, and Monday’s order likewise is allowing the cuts to continue in force while the case is decided.
The chief Legal Aid lawyer in the case, Rosemary Bishop, said she was disappointed that the judge declined to stop the cuts.
“The harm is going to continue to go on,” Bishop said. “One of our clients is in immediate danger of losing her job because her mental health has deteriorated so much. Another client has tried to commit suicide twice since the cuts were made.”
However, Bishop said she was pleased with the selection of Staniforth, not only because he has experience on constitutional and government benefits cases but also because he will have time to study the case closely.
“That’s going to work in our favor because we have a good case, and the more you understand about it, the more you’ll see we’re right,” she said.
Staniforth retired after 10 years on the appellate bench. Court observers said he had a reputation there as a compassionate jurist who saw the Constitution as a means to protect citizens from social injustice. Upon retiring, he cited as his most significant ruling a 1979 decision that cancer patients had a right to use the controversial drug Laetrile. The California Supreme Court later reversed the ruling.
Paul Bruce, deputy county counsel, called Staniforth a “fair, good judge” with much experience in difficult cases. But Bruce protested that the county is having to underwrite hiring him as a referee.
“The county is funding the courts to settle disputes and objects to having to pay more,” Bruce said.
On Oct. 1, the cash-short county instituted $3.2 million in cuts in its mental health clinic system, which serves as the last resort for residents who can’t afford mental health care any other way.
At a network of clinics where such people have received medication and psychotherapy, the county instituted a new “triage” system that allows only the most severely ill to receive help. It emphasizes short-term crisis care rather than continuing care. In some cases, the only aid people can receive is psychotherapeutic drugs with little or no counseling.
The lawsuit contends that the county has a legal obligation to serve as a safety net on mental health services, not just in physical health matters. It also challenges the procedures used to make the cuts.
Last spring, the county first proposed cutting $7.2 million from mental health services, but it restored $4 million of that after hundreds protested at public hearings.