SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state agency charged with caring for the mentally disabled acted illegally in 1982 when it enforced budget cuts that affected 73,000 patients.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Stanley Mosk said the Department of Developmental Services exceeded its jurisdiction when it ordered cuts in services to mentally retarded, autistic and other "developmentally disabled" people.
That decision belongs to the legislature, the court ruled, and the department should have sought additional legislative funding before imposing the reductions.
While the cuts made in 1982 have since been restored, Thursday's ruling means that the department is precluded from ordering similar reductions in any future budget crunch. if the legislature wants to give the department that added power, it must write a statute saying so, the court concluded.
For about six months in 1982 and 1983, the department's action forced regional treatment centers, which receive money from the agency, to curtail counseling and cease accepting new patients, said Jay-Allen Eisen, lawyer for the Assn. for Retarded Citizens, which brought the suit.
That was brought to a standstill in June, 1983, when a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ordered a halt to the $11 million in cutbacks. The Legislature then moved to provide more money to restore services.
Mosk concluded that under state law, the agency must make sure that people in its care spend as little time as possible in state institutions, and are helped to live as independently as possible.
To meet these goals and to give individual treatment to the disabled, the state finances 21 regional treatment centers operated by nonprofit groups across the state.
In a 1982 budget crunch, the department, realizing that it would run short of money, issued directives telling the centers to fund only certain programs. To comply, centers cut other programs specifically designed for some patients.
The high court concluded that because some patients went without proper help, their right to treatment as established by the Legislature was violated.
The department's authority is "basically limited to promoting the cost effectiveness of the operations of the regional centers, and does not extend to the control of the manner in which they provide services or in general operate their programs," the court said.
The Legislature must write a new law if it wants the department to have more authority, the court said.
Touchy Area of Law
The court's decision last year to review the case drew the attention of lawmakers because the court indicated that it planned to address a touchy area of constitutional law that stood to affect the Legislature's budget power.
The issue was whether the Legislature could, in passing the annual budget, also require particular departments to establish spending priorities, when no other statute allows the department such control.
As it turned out, the court sidestepped the constitutional issue. Instead, the ruling was limited to a narrow area--whether under the statute the agency overstepped its bounds. (Assn. for Retarded Citizens vs. Department of Developmental Services, S.F. 27461)
Drunk Driving Case
In a second case, the court by a 4-3 margin ruled that, although a 1981 law was unclear, the Department of Motor Vehicles may revoke the license of a man convicted twice of drunk driving. (Pollack vs. DMV, L.A. 31912)
Justice Joseph Grodin, writing for the majority, chastised the Legislature for what he called "the ambiguous wording of a recently amended statute."
The law could have been read to make it harder to revoke the license of twice-convicted drunk drivers. But in allowing the revocation, Grodin noted that the law stemmed from a legislative push to "banish intoxicated drivers from our highways."
In dissent, Mosk criticized the majority for ignoring "the generally accepted result of statutory ambiguity--to resolve the ambiguity in favor of a criminal defendant."
"In my opinion," Mosk wrote, "the laudable motive of getting drunk drivers off the streets and highways does not justify suspending the rule of law in California."
Other Court Actions
In other actions the high court Thursday agreed to decide:
- An Orange County case in which a state Court of Appeal ruled that police could not stop school-age children during school hours to determine whether they are truants.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction William Honig and Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp had urged the high court to overturn the lower court ruling, saying that it would make enforcement of truancy rules impossible. Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Stanley Mosk, Otto Kaus, Joseph Grodin and Malcolm M. Lucas voted to hear the case.
- An Orange County case challenging a bar's policy of waiving a $2 cover charge for women on "ladies nights." A man is challenging the policy, claiming that it violates the Unruh Civil Rights Act by discriminating against men. A state appellate court ruled that it was not a violation.
- A Long Beach case in which a city union is challenging police authority to subject city employees to a polygraph test in an investigation of thefts from meters at the Long Beach Harbor.