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 Court Case Relates to Home Closing

January 14, 2009 - As a state residential school and children’s home established by the Indiana legislature, shouldn’t the decision to close the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home be one that has to be made by state lawmakers?

Following last week’s announcement that State Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe has decided to close the Home at the end of the current school year, that question was on the minds of many who believed Monroe had overstepped her authority. In a case that would appear to foreclose a successful legal challenge on those grounds, however, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled two years ago that Monroe, as health commissioner, had authority to close another institution that served the state’s children.

The Indiana State Department of Health (ISHD) began evaluating three institutions in May 2005 that were, at that time, administered by the agency: Silvercrest Children’s Development Center, a state center in New Albany for school-aged children with multiple developmental disabilities; the Home in Knightstown; and the Indiana Veterans Home. Within a matter of months, Gov. Mitch Daniels, in conjunction with Monroe, ordered Silvercrest to be closed.

A lawsuit was quickly filed by a group of nine Silvercrest students and their guardians, two Silvercrest employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. These plaintiffs argued that because Silvercrest had been established by the state legislature, a decision to close the facility could only be made by lawmakers, an argument the trial court rejected.

As is the case with the Home in Knightstown, Indiana statute placed responsibility for administering Silvercrest with the ISDH. Furthermore, state statute also gave the state’s health commissioner “complete administrative control and responsibility’ for Silvercrest, the same exact statutory powers she has with respect to the Home.

On appeal, the plaintiffs in the Silvercrest case argued that “administrative control” over the facility did not include the power to close it. If those in charge of administering the facility were permitted to close it, they reasoned, there would be nothing left to administer. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

“The statute gives unfettered control over the administration of Silvercrest,” Judge John Baker wrote in a the court’s unanimous opinion. “The plain meaning of ‘control’ is ‘the power or authority to manage, superintend, restrict, regulate, direct, govern, administer, or oversee,’ as well as the power to restrain, check, or regulate. … It is reasonable to understand the ‘administrative control’ given to the Commissioner to include the authority to close Silvercrest based on the plain meaning of those words. Thus, the decision to close Silvercrest did not violate statutory law.

“This conclusion is further bolstered by the fact that under similar circumstances, the General Assembly passed a law that put specific conditions on the Governor’s ability to close a state facility,” Baker continued. Noting that state lawmakers enacted laws to specifically limit O’Bannon’s ability to close the Muscatatuck State Developmental Center and two facilities in Evansville, Baker said, “No such conditions were placed on the ability to close Silvercrest.”

The Silvercrest plaintiffs did not pursue the matter any further after the Court of Appeals ruling was handed down in August of 2006. The Indiana Supreme Court was never asked, therefore, to determine whether this particular panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals -- the Court of Appeals is comprised of five separate three-judge panels -- had ruled properly.

What does the Silvercrest ruling mean for the those concerned about the pending closure of the Home? Quite simply, the ruling means that the Court of Appeals has established legal precedent supporting Health Commissioner Monroe’s decision to bypass the state legislature and decide on her own that the Home should be closed.

Does this mean there are no options left for those hoping to prevent Monroe from closing the Home? No, it doesn’t.

It does mean, however, that that those wishing to prevent the Home’s closure may have more luck – and a better legal position – pursuing a strategy that Judge Baker noted in the Silvercrest opinion: encouraging state lawmakers to place statutory restrictions on the ISDH and the health commissioner that explicitly take away from them the power to close the Home.

 

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