A coalition of disability and civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday asking the California Supreme Court to block the rollout of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s far-reaching new plan to address severe mental illness by compelling treatment for thousands of people.
In their filing, representatives from three organizations — Disability Rights California, Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Public Interest Law Project — asked the state’s high court to strike down as unconstitutional the program known as CARE Court (for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment). The groups argue that the sweeping new court system will violate due process and equal protection rights under the state constitution, while “needlessly burdening fundamental rights to privacy, autonomy and liberty.”
Newsom announced CARE Court in March as a new strategy to help an estimated 7,000 to 12,000 Californians struggling with severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia access housing, treatment and mental health services. It was signed into law in September as Senate Bill 1338.
In a statement, Newsom’s deputy communications director Daniel Lopez said efforts to delay or block the law’s implementation “would needlessly extend the suffering of those who desperately need our help.”
“The governor — along with the majority of Californians — are beyond frustrated by the conditions seen daily on our streets. There’s nothing compassionate about allowing individuals with severe, untreated mental health and substance use disorders to suffer in our alleyways, in our criminal justice system, or worse — face death,” Lopez said. “While some groups want to delay progress with arguments in favor of the failing status quo, the rest of us are dealing with the cold, hard reality that something must urgently be done to address this crisis.”
CARE Court is scheduled to be rolled out in two phases: Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus, Glenn and Tuolumne Counties have until Oct. 1 of this year to begin implementation, with Los Angeles County on track to join two months later. The rest of the state has until December 2024.
A funding measure for CARE Court initially set aside $88 million to begin implementation. Newsom included an additional $52 million in his budget proposal this year to help counties and courts kick start the program, with the eventual plan to ramp up funding to $215 million by fiscal year 2025-2026.
The governor’s office has also pointed to billions of dollars more available in existing state spending accounts for housing, homelessness, behavioral and mental health programs, though counties have long questioned whether that will be enough.
Dozens of cities and mayors supported the plan, along with business organizations and groups representing families of affected loved ones who said CARE Court might finally offer them another option for help.
The new law will allow family members, first responders, medical professionals and behavioral health providers, among others, to petition a judge to order an evaluation of an adult with a diagnosed psychotic disorder. If a person qualifies, a CARE plan could include medication and treatment services and housing if needed. Newsom has been careful to distinguish CARE Court from the more restrictive conservatorship, because those who qualify could still technically refuse to participate.
But those caveats have done little to soften strong opposition from the coalition that filed the lawsuit, which joined the ACLU and several other racial and civil rights groups, homeless advocates and affordable housing organizations in trying to block the measure last year. Critics argued that CARE Court was a misguided approach for solving an issue that needed more significant investments in permanent housing and voluntary treatment services.
“The proposed solution is court orders that rob unhoused Californians of their autonomy to choose their own mental health treatment and housing and threatens their liberty,” the filing stated. “This ‘solution’ will not work and will deprive thousands of people of their constitutional rights.”
The coalition said it filed the lawsuit directly to the state Supreme Court in an effort to expedite timing for a decision. Lawsuits initially filed in lower courts can take more time given that rulings are often appealed.
But the groups could still refile their petition in a lower court should the Supreme Court decide not to take the case, said Sarah Gregory, senior attorney at Disability Rights California.
“[Disability Rights California] has considered all options on the table since the beginning,” Gregory said, “and it will continue to consider all options depending on what the Supreme Court decides.”