State closer to ending 31-year-old lawsuit - Albuquerque Journal

State closer to ending 31-year-old lawsuit

New Mexico is a step closer to resolving one of the nation’s longest-running institutional reform lawsuits.

Filed in 1987 to force the state to change the way it provides services to people with developmental disabilities, the suit has cost New Mexicans more than $50 million in litigation expenses, according to court documents.

The class-action suit, commonly called Jackson v. New Mexico, was triggered by the undisputed inhumane treatment and abuse of residents at state-run institutions for people with developmental disabilities.

In the decades since, the parties have slogged through reforms, and federal Judge James Parker mandated monitors oversee the state’s effort.

Plaintiffs in the case say that even after all these years, the state has not improved its care system enough to be let out of the court-ordered oversight.

But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday issued an opinion that sends the case back to Parker’s court to reconsider if oversight – and the continuation of the case – truly is necessary.

The state hopes a fresh assessment of how well the Department of Health is protecting the constitutional rights of the developmentally disabled in its care will show that it has improved the safety, health and wellbeing of clients.

The ruling opens the door to an end to the case, if the assessment shows the state is doing better than it was 31 years ago.

But it doesn’t close the door on keeping federal oversight if Parker continues to find the state has failed to meet its obligations.

The main tussle is over what measures of reform the state has met.

What started off as a lawsuit about rampant constitutional violations of the residents at the institutions grew to include other wrongdoing by the state.

In response, the state entered into legal agreements to fix more issues than those related to the constitutional violations.

The state has tried to back out of these additional agreements. It also argues that continued federal oversight amounts to a sort of federal takeover of the state.

But Parker has held the state to its promises, saying the state has not met enough of its obligations, ultimately denying efforts by the state to dismiss the case.

The Court of Appeal’s opinion issued Tuesday reverses Parker’s ruling and asks him to re-evaluate the case based on whether the state has met the underlying constitutional and statutory violations.

“The unfortunate result of this decision is we will have to have another evidentiary hearing about whether the current circumstance are still violating the same constitutional and statutory requirements of federal law that Judge Parker found in 1990,” said Peter Cubra, one of five attorneys representing the disabled client plaintiffs.

State attorneys look at the ruling more favorably.

“Overall the state is very pleased that we are getting another opportunity,” said Jerry Walz, attorney for the state.

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