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Opponents mulling court challenge with CARE Court signed into law

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new bill Wednesday that will create a framework in civil courts to provide court-ordered treatment plans for individuals with severe mental illness. Opponents are already considering options to challenge the bill.

The new law, which establishes the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, would allow certain individuals to petition a court to create a court-ordered treatment plan for individuals on the schizophrenia spectrum or who have another psychotic disorder. The court could also connect individuals to services, medication and housing.

Newsom backed the measure, touting it as a way to stop the cycle of homelessness and incarceration among people with severe mental illness.

“This is a new paradigm. This is a new approach,” Newsom said Wednesday in a signing ceremony.

An individual could qualify for a CARE agreement if they are 18 or older, experiencing severe mental illness, not currently involved in voluntary treatment and are either deteriorating and “unlikely to survive” in the community without supervision or are in need of services to prevent relapse or deterioration.

Under the law, a family member of the individual, health officials, first responders or a county behavioral health agency could petition a court to initiate the CARE process. The petition would trigger a series of actions to determine whether an individual qualifies for a CARE plan.

If eligible, the court would order a county behavioral health agency to develop a CARE agreement with the qualified individual that would be reviewed by the court in future hearings. The initial plan could last up to 12 months with the option to expand another 12 months.

The counties of Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne and the City and County of San Francisco must establish the CARE Court program by Oct. 1, 2023, and all other counties are required to begin the program by Dec. 1, 2024. The recently enacted state budget included $64.7 million in 2022-2023 and $49 million in ongoing funding for the Department of Health Care Services, the Judicial Branch and the Department of Aging to implement the framework.

As the bill wove through the Legislature, it faced strong opposition from organizations who feared CARE Court would harm people living with disabilities. More than 50 organizations sent a letter urging Newsom to veto the bill earlier this month, raising concern about stigmatizing people with mental health disabilities and the lack of housing stock available to offer individuals under CARE plans.

“CARE Court is exploitative of poor people who need mental health care and will create a chilling effect preventing people from seeking treatment and care,” the veto letter states.

Opponents of the framework said Wednesday they were already considering options to challenge the legislation, including litigation. Lili Graham, litigation counsel with the Civil Rights Practice Group at Disability Rights California, told The Center Square that the organization is looking “to take this to the courtroom” and is considering all options.

“We are looking to file a lawsuit if that is the only option we have,” Graham said. “We’ve reached out to the governor’s office. We’ve asked for him to veto it. If we're only left with filing a lawsuit to stop CARE court, that's what we will do.”

Graham added that Disability Rights California, alongside other groups in opposition, were “completely shocked” when the entire CARE Court system was introduced in March. Graham said the groups in opposition to the bill “were never consulted” or brought to the table for input on the plan.

Before the bill was signed Wednesday, the ACLU Southern California tweeted that it expected to “see legal challenges to stop this misguided plan from harming our community.”

Newsom called the threats of legal challenges “exhausting” on Wednesday, saying that the point of view of the groups threatening the challenges “has been well-advanced for a half century in the state of California.”


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