Federal Overreach Impacts Mississippi

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was passed to eliminate unjustified discrimination based on disability. It provides protections against discrimination to disabled Americans, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is telling Mississippi the ADA provides mentally ill adults an unconstrained constitutional right to community-based services.

Forced school desegregation was implemented by federal courts to eliminate illegal discrimination based on race. States that had passed laws requiring segregation by race have seen their school districts face decades of court ordered desegregation plans.

Now, in Cleveland, Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten a new federal judge to rule that students have a “constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

Both of these cases represent overreach by the federal government, particularly by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Hopefully, seasoned federal judges will see fit to rein in such excess.

In 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “unjustified isolation” of mentally ill individuals “is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”  The Olmstead ruling further said the state must provide community-based mental health services when they “can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the entity and the needs of other persons with disabilities.” The key words here are “unjustified” and “resources available.”

Since 2011 the DOJ has been pushing the state to shift its emphasis and funding from state mental institutions to community-based services. While the state has built a system of community-based mental health services, most of its limited funding still goes for institutional care. The Legislature’s PEER Committee has reported several times the state would need to do more to comply with Olmstead.

In August, DOJ filed suit to force the state to comply. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch proclaimed that “Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions.”

Notably, the lawsuit avoids addressing the “resources available” requirement. Instead it argues that since the state provides a lower proportion of funding to community-based care than other states, it is discriminating against the mentally ill.

The Cleveland desegregation case came before U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown who was appointed to the federal bench in 2013 after 16 years practicing commercial law. In her ruling, Judge Brown forthrightly ignored prior orders by distinguished judges William C. Keady, Glen H. Davidson, and L.T. Senter to determine that Cleveland’s freedom of choice school desegregation plans were unconstitutional. She showed great deference to the arguments of DOJ expert Clare Smrekar, but little to the local school district or its expert Christine Rossell, despite guidance by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that she should as much as possible “defer to the District’s plans.”

Should Judge Brown’s new constitutional right take root, many schools and some universities face consolidation. Cleveland has appealed her ruling.

While Mississippi needs to do better in many ways, federal overreach is not the answer.

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