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Justices to rule if hospitals are best for retarded Practice isolates them from society, critics say


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on an argument by nearly half the states that they violate no law by keeping mentally retarded people in a state hospital even if those people could instead be treated in facilities that allow them contact with others.

At issue in a case from Georgia is the scope of protection for the retarded under a federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Maryland joined 20 other states in supporting Georgia officials' plea to clarify a conflict among lower courts on the issue.

Advocates for the retarded contend that state hospitals are segregated institutions that keep their residents from mingling with people who are not disabled and from developing contacts in the community.

Treatment of the retarded is often adequate, those advocates contend, in a community-based facility, where contact with others is available and even encouraged.

Justice Department regulations support that view.

The regulations specify that it is a form of discrimination under the disabilities law to keep a retarded person at a psychiatric hospital when community-based treatment is appropriate.

In the Georgia case, a federal appeals court in April upheld the Justice Department view and the view of activists supporting the retarded. In enacting the disabilities law, Congress opted for economic and social mainstreaming of the disabled, the court concluded.

The state officials' appeal argues that the case poses an issue of national significance and raises the prospect that the Justice Department may seek to impose its views nationwide.

The confinement of retarded individuals to a state-run psychiatric hospital in Atlanta -- Georgia Regional Hospital -- was challenged by two people, identified in court papers only by their initials, L. C. and E. W.

Both have since been transferred to community-based facilities. But they remain at risk of being sent back to the Atlanta hospital if they lose the case in the Supreme Court.

A ruling on the case is expected by next summer.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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