AUGUSTA (AP) – The state will appeal portions of a judge’s ruling in which she ordered the state’s psychiatric hospital placed in receivership, Gov. John Baldacci and Attorney General Steven Rowe said Tuesday.

Rowe said a notice was filed Tuesday, and details of the state’s appeal of Superior Court Chief Justice Nancy Mills’ ruling will be filed in the days ahead. Rowe and Baldacci both stressed that the state remains committed to improving services for the mentally ill.

“We cannot overemphasize that the state’s focus is on continuous improvement of the state’s mental health system,” Rowe said.

“Nonetheless, there are legal issues presented by the court’s decision that we believe we must appeal because of the precedent they create – not just for the future course of this case, but for government in general,” Rowe said.

Among the points to be raised by the state is whether Mills had a legal basis to order a receiver for the Augusta Mental Health Institute in her Sept. 10 ruling.

Mills also ordered the appointment of a second receiver to operate Maine’s community-based mental health system, but put off that appointment for six months.

The appeal will also challenge the court’s conclusion that the state did not act in good faith when it said it had complied with the a consent decree that orders improvements in conditions and treatment of Maine’s mentally ill people.

The consent decree settled a 1989 class action suit filed by patients at AMHI.

Baldacci said that while he shares Mills’ sense of passion for Mainers served by the mental health system, “I disagree with her prescription.”

The governor said the court’s order to have a receiver take over executive functions is unprecedented in Maine and raises serious constitutional questions. He also said the court action provides no clear standard of care.

“I just think the goal lines keep moving,” Baldacci said.

Despite a budget shortfall that exceeded $1.2 billion when he took office in January, the budget was balanced with no cuts in services at AMHI or to people receiving mental health services in the community, Baldacci noted. A new $33 million state psychiatric center has also been built, he noted.

Rowe also raised an issue of timing. Many of the court’s findings of noncompliance relate to actions no later than Jan. 25, 2002. By the time the state supreme court hears the appeal, more than two years will have passed and much of the evidence will have been outdated, Rowe asserted.

Rowe and Baldacci said the administration will continue working with the court master enforcing the AMHI decree, Daniel Wathen, to see that mental health services are improved.

A message left with Helen Bailey, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center who has represented AMHI patients since their suit was filed, was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Two legislators who head the committee that oversees mental health services in the state applauded the decision to appeal, but they too stressed that the first priority is to ensure that AMHI patients and others covered by the consent decree get the mental health services they deserve.

“We agree with the attorney general’s office that the court’s decision, while well-intentioned, may have exceeded the court’s authority and may not be in the best interest of those covered by the decree,” said Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

The panel’s House chairman, Rep. Thomas Kane, said the Legislature has provided adequate funding for AMHI.

“We do not believe the court has the authority to take funding and oversight responsibilities away from the Legislature,” the Saco Democrat added.

AP-ES-09-30-03 1413EDT

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