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DFN E-News: May 17, 2004

Special Report


Supreme Court Upholds ADA in Tennessee v. Lane

“A Welcome Announcement”

In a welcome announcement on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Americans with disabilities’ right to sue states for lack of accessibility to courts. It was a narrow decision, however, both in terms of the split of the justices (5-4) and in the uncertainty that remains about the ADA (the decision only applied to this particular fact pattern, not Title II of the ADA in general). A statement by AAPD President Andy Imparato follows, along with an AP story.

Jonathan Young
Justice For All (JFA) Moderator, American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)


“Today’s decision is a welcome reversal of the Rehnquist Court’s onslaught on disability rights, but this fight is not over,” said Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), which filed an amicus brief in the case. “Four justices still do not understand the connection between Brown v. Board of Education, the Constitution’s protection of individual rights, and the right to be present at your own trial if you use a wheelchair.”

Imparato added: “Five justices on the Supreme Court, including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, have made an important ruling today that recognizes the history of unconstitutional discrimination against people with disabilities by State governments. For this ruling to come down on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision is appropriate and welcome.”

Imparato continued: “Unfortunately, the victory is narrow, however, because the majority elected not to rule on the Constitutional questions outside the specific facts of the case (which involved a criminal defendant who used a wheelchair and was forced to crawl up steps or be carried to get to his trial in a State proceeding, and other issues around access to State courthouses), and we still have a 2001 decision (University of Alabama v. Garrett) where Justice O’Connor and today’s dissenters ruled that when the State is acting as an employer it has more rights than individual victims of disability discrimination under the Constitution.”

AAPD is the nation’s largest membership organization representing people with all types of disabilities. Imparato’s chapter on the Rehnquist Court’s rulings in the area of disability rights appears in The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right (Hill and Wang, 2002) (H. Schwartz, ed.).

High Court Upholds Rules in Disabilities Act

In Previous Cases, the Court Has Limited the Effect of the ADA

The Associated Press
Monday, May 17, 2004; 10:40 AM

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court upheld the rights of disabled people under a national law meant to protect them, ruling Monday that a paraplegic who crawled up the steps of a small-town courthouse can sue over the lack of an elevator.

The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act properly gives private citizens such as George Lane the right to seek money in court if a state fails to live up to the law’s requirements, a 5-to-4 majority ruled.

In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA, so Monday’s outcome was unexpected.

At issue in Lane’s case was the right of private citizens to try to pursue alleged violations of the ADA in federal courts. Advocates for the disabled claimed that the fear of hefty damage awards was a powerful tool to force state governments to follow the requirements of the ADA.

“The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history” that has persisted despite anti-discrimination laws, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The case began when Lane tried to sue the state of Tennessee for up to $100,000 for what he claimed was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA. Lane crawled up the Polk County courthouse steps once for an appearance in a reckless driving case, but was arrested in 1996 for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl a second time. Courthouse employees have said he also refused offers of help.

Tennessee did not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. The state argued, however, that Lane’s constitutional rights were not violated and that he had no right to take the state to court. The state claimed that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

Stevens said Congress had ample evidence of discrimination when it wrote the part of the law at issues in Lane’s case. Called Title II, it guarantees that the disabled will have access to government services. “It is not difficult to perceive the harm that Title II is designed to address,” Stevens wrote. Congress enacted Title II against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights.”

The case is the latest in a series of conflicts over states’ rights and the powers of Congress, but it did not come out like most of the others. In a series of cases since the late 1990s, O’Connor has sided with the court’s core conservatives to form a five- member majority that has gradually expanded the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, chief architect of that states rights push, dissented in Monday’s case. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas also dissented.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press

Also see Disabled Win Right to Sue States Over Court Access by Charles Lane in the Washington Post.

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