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The state Supreme Court has decided to accept a case that could fundamentally change the way severely mentally ill residents are handled when most in need of treatment.

The justices said today they will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of so-called “psychiatric boarding” — when residents involuntarily committed for mental-health treatment are parked for hours or days in hospital emergency rooms before receiving care.

More than half of involuntarily detained residents — more than 4,000 last year — are now boarded for an average of three days as Washington state detains more often but continues to have among the fewest psychiatric-treatment beds per capita in the country. Opponents see the ordeal as harmful to patients, while state officials have argued it is better than leaving dangerously mentally ill residents on the streets.

If psychiatric boarding is declared unconstitutional, the state would most likely have to scramble to treat severely mentally ill residents sooner.

The state Supreme Court’s decision follows a move by a Pierce County-based appellate judge last week to pass the case on to the high court.

The rare fast-tracking means the justices will probably hear oral arguments on boarding sometime this year, according to the court calendar.

The case arose in Pierce County last year, when public defenders questioned how it could be constitutional for the government to detain mentally ill citizens without treating them. They won in the lower courts, though a judge let boarding continue as the state appealed.