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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 12:47 p.m., Thursday, March 23, 2006

Judge: State may be held in contempt

By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer

U. S. District Judge David Ezra warned this morning that he will hold the state in contempt of court and order a federal takeover of the Department of Health mental health program unless the state makes dramatic improvements in complying with a plan to provide services to Hawai'i's mentally ill residents by April 30.

Ezra denied a request by Department of Justice lawyers asking for unspecified sanctions based on what they say are the state's "egregious failings" in not developing the plan as part of an agreement that was approved by the federal court.

But the judge said he agreed with the lawyers.

"It does not appear the state is making reasonable best efforts to comply with the court's order," the judge said.

The judge said he is giving the state "one more last and final opportunity to meet its obligations."

The community plan is related to the 1991 federal consent decree the was the result of a Justice Department lawsuit alleging violations of the constitutional rights of patients at the Hawai'i State Hospital.

The hospital emerged from the consent decree in late 2004, but the federal oversight continued for state health officials to provide the services for the mentally ill outside of the facility. The number of those people has been estimated at 9,000.

U. S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang, acting as a fact-finder and special master to Judge Ezra, issued two reports both critical of the state's efforts to develop the community plan.

The Justice Department's request was based on Chang's report last month that said the state's lack of progress has led to overcrowding at the state hospital and could negate the improvements made at the facility.

Ezra said he hopes he will not have to reach a point where he would have to hold the state in contempt.

He ordered the state and Justice Department lawyers to meet with Chang to determine what must be done by April 30. Ezra said if the attorneys can't agree, he will make that determination.

Verlin Deerinwater, a Washington D. C. attorney with the Justice Department civil rights division, based his request for sanctions on Chang's latest report