Pa. court system says it’s not responsible for county judges banning opioid addiction medication

What’s the harm of banning these drugs?

A Jefferson County court order that banned “opiate based treatment medications” in 2018 led Sonya Mosey to face a choice: Stop taking her physician-prescribed medication or have her probation revoked and go to jail.

Mosey had struggled with opioid addiction for more than a decade and weaning herself off the medication caused her to feel sick every day and fear the worst, she previously told Spotlight PA.

“Honestly, I knew I was going to relapse, and I was probably going to die,” Mosey said. “I knew my parents were probably going to have to bury me.”

After the judge lifted the ban, Moses said she had “a spark of hope.”

Guidance from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration warns against arbitrary time limits for using opioid use disorder medication. The 2019 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found people are about 50% less likely to die when treated long-term with buprenorphine or methadone.

What’s the Pennsylvania court system’s argument?

“There is no question that — particularly in the judicial system of a large state such as Pennsylvania — some mistakes will be made in the sixty judicial districts,” attorneys for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and its administrative arm wrote in a court filing.

But they argued that the Department of Justice has failed to provide evidence of a systemic, statewide problem. Attorneys said that statewide court leaders already remind county courts that they must follow federal requirements and provide ample support to help courts satisfy their obligations. And they say the statewide system should not be held accountable for the supervision that judges provide at the local level.

They’ve raised a number of other technical arguments, as well, including whether the Justice Department has standing to sue.

What’s the Department of Justice’s argument?

The statewide system has the power and responsibility to ensure county courts do not adopt these types of blanket discriminatory policies, Department of Justice attorneys wrote. They argue that local courts are part of the statewide system, not separate legal entities, and that the statewide court system’s disability discrimination policies are “generic” and “insufficient.”

Attorneys for the Justice Department are asking a federal judge to order Pennsylvania courts to make a number of changes. They argue that the system should adopt or revise policies to explicitly state that no court within the system can discriminate against someone because they take prescribed opioid use disorder medication.

In court filings, attorneys for Pennsylvania’s judicial system said the Department of Justice might be using the lawsuit “to set a national example to advance policies.”

Justice Department attorneys are using according to the Americans with Disabilities Act “to try to overcome some of the rampant discrimination that people with substance use disorders face,” to a recent special report by STAT, a health-focused news organization.

In an April news release, the department pointed to the Pennsylvania lawsuit as an example of its broader response to the opioid epidemic. Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division, said the agency is committed to using federal civil rights laws “to safeguard people with opioid use disorder from facing discriminatory barriers as they move forward with their lives.”

What do advocates think of the case?

“The court system needs to step up to the plate and make sure that these kinds of end practices immediately,” Sally Friedman, senior vice president of legal advocacy for the national Legal Action Center, told Spotlight PA.

Friedman’s organization represents Mosey and helped her fight the Jefferson County ban in 2018. Friedman said the state judicial system can’t turn a blind eye to discrimination when many of its courts are interfering with people’s civil rights — especially when that interference puts lives in danger .

What’s next?

The federal district court judge hearing the case has yet to rule on the court system’s motion to dismiss as of July 13.

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