Alabama Supreme Court Restricts Probate Judge’s Authority over Mentally Ill Patients
Last fall the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling restricting Mobile County Probate Judge Donald Davis from dictating the type of treatment mental health patients can receive. The case has been touted as a landmark case regarding the clarification of patient care.
Judge Davis can still order mental health counseling, but is not permitted to make decisions regarding the patient’s care. The Alabama Supreme Court ruling affirms a 2010 Monroe County Circuit Court ruling that state laws "do not expressly grant the probate court authority to dictate, set, monitor or enforce treatment, clinical standards or standards of care or treatment."
The case arose when AltaPointe Health Systems challenged Davis’ authority to question or dictate patient care. AltaPointe provides court-ordered mental health treatment to over 600 people a year. AltaPointe contended that Davis overstepped his authority regarding those patients seeking outpatient treatment, including raising questions about the type of medication the patients were receiving and attempting to dictate how often a patient saw a doctor. AltaPointe further contended that Davis did not have the requisite medical knowledge to make these decisions. Davis often required frequent court hearings to check on the status of those patients ordered into outpatient care.
Davis responded that AltaPointe failed to report instances of outpatients missing appointments or failing to take their medications. He stated in court documents that these incidences put public safety at risk. In an affidavit, Davis referred to a 2007 incident in which a man under court-ordered outpatient care attacked a sheriff’s deputy with a knife and was shot by law enforcement. Davis contended that AltaPointe did not inform him promptly of the man’s failure to comply with the terms of his court-ordered care. The Circuit Court ruling, affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court, holds that medical experts, not judges, should evaluate a patient’s behavior and make decisions regarding their care.
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