On December 17, 2004, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, issued its decision in Bates v. Department of Behavioral & Developmental Services, which affirmed in part, and vacated in part, the decision of Superior Court Chief Justice Nancy Mills, and remanded for further proceedings in the so-called Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI) Consent Decree case. In the underlying litigation, patients at the mental health hospital filed motions for sanctions and findings of contempt alleging the State of Maine failed to comply with the 1990 Consent Decree and incorporated settlement agreement. After a seventeen-day trial on whether the State had substantially complied with the Consent Decree, Chief Justice Mills held the State in contempt and appointed a receiver to supervise and direct the day-to-day operations of AMHl. The State appealed on the grounds that the trial court's finding of contempt was an abuse of discretion and that the appointment of a receiver violated the separation of powers doctrine under Article III of the Maine Constitution. Justice Alexander, on behalf of a unanimous Law Court, held that the determination of whether the State was in substantial compliance with the Consent Decree should have been made under a systems-based standard, regardless of whether the State had complied with individual aspects of the Consent Decree. The court reasoned that though the State was in contempt, and irrespective of its obligation to establish by agreement a comprehensive system of internal monitoring and evaluation to measure the State's progress in achieving goals, the trial court should have attempted less intrusive alternatives before appointing a receiver to operate AMHl. Given that the trial court applied the wrong standard for determining "substantial compliance," the Law Court declined to address the separation of powers argument on appeal. The history of litigation involving AMHI, state government, and advocacy groups for the disabled parallels similar litigation around the country from the 1970s to the present. As both the powerful and vulnerable members of American society sought judicial oversight of social welfare issues, an extraordinary shift in traditional notions of the social contract between all three branches of government and its citizens was revealed. This shift from, at least, a cultural myth that there is a preference for representative government to the choice by the polis of a judicial theocracy, as a function of the delivery of social services, may well be part of the modern democratic process. Specifically, the Bates decision-a conservative response to the exercise of judicial power against the executive branch-provides a means of analyzing the separation of powers doctrine, as established by Articles III and VI of the Maine Constitution, and the evolution of the social contract. Accordingly, the Law Court's refusal to enforce the AMHI settlement agreement in Bates, which contemplated court appointment of a receiver in the event of breach, was an affirmative, and incorrect, answer to the constitutional question on which the court purportedly reserved decision.
Dana E. Prescott,
Consent Decrees, the Enlightenment, and the "Modern" Social Contract: A Case Study from Bates, Olmstead, and Maine's Separation of Powers Doctrine,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol59/iss1/4