State appeals court rules judge erred in holding Maryland health department officials in contempt

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ruled a Baltimore judge exceeded her authority when she held five state Health Department officials in civil contempt over delays in providing psychiatric hospital beds to defendants referred by the courts.

Unless the decision is overturned by the state Court of Appeals, it would set a precedent limiting the power of judges to use civil contempt to address ongoing problems in complying with court orders.

Circuit Judge Gale Rasin ruled in September 2017 that the department, then-Secretary Dennis Schrader and four other officials had violated court orders by taking up to several months to comply with court orders to admit criminal defendants to state psychiatric hospitals.

Rasin acted in response to a petition by nine defendants who challenged the delays in their hospital treatment.

The judge ruled the department “failed miserably to meet its responsibility.” She said its system for evaluating and treating potentially mentally ill defendants was “in a shambles.” And she noted that when defendants found incompetent to stand trial are not promptly admitted to hospitals, they languish in jails, which are less equipped to deal with their mental health problems.

Rasin wrote that state health officials had been aware of a need to expand state hospitals as far back as 2012, when Martin O’Malley was governor. At the time, a consultant recommended “a very significant increase in hospital beds.”

The officials Rasin held in contempt were Schrader; Barbara Bazron, the deputy health secretary; Erik Roskes, who was then director of forensic services for the department’s behavioral health administration, and two officials at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup. Roskes left the department shortly after the contempt finding.

The judge was especially harsh in her comments about Schrader, whom she called “disconnected from the process.” Schrader has since been replaced as heath secretary by Robert R. Neall, but remains chief operating officer of the department.

Raisin ruled that in order for the court to lift the contempt finding, department officials would have to fully staff 20 beds that had been added to Perkins, to open and staff 20 more beds in a new admissions unit there, and open and staff an additional 20 beds at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville.

The state appealed, and a three-judge panel of the state’s intermediate appeals court issued an opinion Wednesday saying Rasin had gone too far.

The judges ruled that the purpose of civil contempt is to “coerce compliance with a court order.” They said that because the state had found beds for the defendants by time of the contempt hearing, “there is nothing to coerce.”

“Holding the party in civil contempt at that point does not have the effect of coercing compliance, but rather, of punishing the party for the past failure to comply,” the appeals court said.

The court said a judge’s options in such a case are limited to citing officials for criminal contempt for violating a past court order.

The judges noted that the “situation presented in this case is not likely to occur in the future.” They pointed to legislation the General Assembly passed this year that sets a deadline of 10 business days for the department to comply with a court order to admit a defendant to a psychiatric hospital.

That law, which took effect Oct., 1, also allows a judge to impose sanctions on the department for failing to comply by that deadline, including requiring it to reimburse local jails for the cost of housing defendants past the time they were to have been sent to hospitals.

It could not immediately be determined whether lawyers for the defendants plan to take their case to the Court of Appeals.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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