JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge is ordering that two lawsuits over Mississippi's mental health system be combined.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Parker on Tuesday agreed to a request for the merger by Mississippi state government. A 2010 lawsuit challenges the state's mental health care for children, and the federal government sued earlier this year over mental health care for adults.
The central argument in each challenge is that Mississippi relies too much on sending people to psychiatric hospitals and other institutions for treatment. Under federal law and court decisions, states are supposed to provide care in the least restrictive setting possible, helping people live at home and not in state mental hospitals or private institutions.
"Their facts may differ in some respects, but each case involves a different facet of the same state mental health system," Parker wrote. "Accordingly, some factual overlap is likely. Consolidating the cases may present some minor procedural hurdles, but overall it would 'avoid unnecessary cost or delay.'"
The federal government fought the merger, arguing the cases have differing issues. Federal officials also noted that the children's case, filed on behalf of four minors by the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks class action status. A judge's decision on that request could delay proceedings.
Federal officials took part in unsuccessful settlement talks in the children's case with Attorney General Jim Hood, although the federal government hadn't joined that suit as a party.
The children's case had been stuck, but under pressure over delays, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate made some important rulings in November. He dismissed part of the lawsuit claiming Mississippi was violating early screening requirements of the Medicaid program, adopting a magistrate's conclusion that plaintiffs failed to request screening.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Jackson and the Southern Poverty Law Center didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.