That'll Teach You to Appeal

Although the losing attorneys won't admit it, they probably wish now they'd never appealed a Maricopa County judge's ruling that the chronically mentally ill deserve the services the state has said they should receive.

Last week's Arizona Supreme Court decision which upheld that ruling--a landmark decision that goes farther than any other state--has far-reaching implications.

* The 1986 ruling favoring the mentally ill came out of a lawsuit filed in Superior Court by the Center for Law in the Public Interest. What the center won was the right of the mentally ill in this county alone to get service in their communities, rather than in mental hospitals. But both the county attorney and the Arizona attorney general appealed, and when the Supreme Court spoke, it spoke for the mentally ill throughout all of Arizona.

* Another issue decided by the appeal was the right of attorneys to file class-action suits--which represent everyone in a particular situation--against public officials who they believe are not fulfilling their legal obligations. That could apply to any group that doesn't feel it's getting its fair share. Until this appeal, there wasn't a precedent in Arizona to allow that.

* The Supreme Court also "applied" a doctrine of paying attorney fees to attorneys who sue over "important public issues." Until now, there wasn't firm precedent for paying those fees.

Attorney Amy Gittler, who originally filed the suit when she directed the public-interest law firm, thinks the appeal cheated both her clients and the taxpayers: "Our clients have waited four years for their rights to be decided, while taxpayers also suffered, because their money was spent to fight over the obligation rather than to meet the needs." In the meantime, Arizona has suffered the embarrassment of being dead last in the money it spends on mental health--less than every other state and even Puerto Rico.

Gittler recalls she tried to avoid an appeal after the trial judge ruled in her favor in 1985. "We had a meeting with the other attorneys after we won to see what we could do to get them to comply without an appeal," she says. "They had no interest in resolving the issue."

Assistant attorney general Robert Zumoff, who headed the state's challenge, maintains the appeal was "legally justified," although he agrees that "litigation is not a good substitution for providing service." Upon further reflection, he called back to add that an appeal was needed so everyone would have a "definitive state ruling" on the question. He says the state fully expected a similar lawsuit on behalf of the mentally ill in another county and didn't want to go through the whole process again. "Most of our money was spent preparing for trial," he says, "so we felt it was a better use of the AG's resources to get a definitive ruling rather than start all over with another suit."

Assistant county attorney Gordon Goodnow said the county Board of Supervisors wanted to appeal because "they thought it was in the public interest to oppose a program they felt they couldn't afford--even if it was worthwhile."

Gittler says she and her co-counsel racked up about $230,000 in attorney fees for the trial portion of the lawsuit and haven't even calculated what they spent on the appeal. She suggested, and the other attorneys agreed, that similar costs were felt by both the county and the state, which not only will pay their own but the center's as well.

Still left hanging is what the financially strapped Arizona legislature will do now that it must fund the programs its own laws require for the mentally ill. Some estimates put that price tag at $143 million annually--three times more than Arizona now spends on mental health.

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Jana Bommersbach