Court Hears Disabled Case

SCOTUS / the supreme court / Accessibility for Handicapped sign / disabilities AP / CBS

The image of a paraplegic man crawling up two flights of stairs to reach a public courtroom is the dramatic backdrop to the latest Supreme Court fight over protections for the disabled.

The high court was considering the case of George Lane of Tennessee on Tuesday. The case is one of the most closely watched on the justices' busy calendar, now about halfway complete.

In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark law meant to guarantee equality for the disabled. At issue now is the right of private citizens to sue over alleged violations such as the lack of an elevator in the small-town courthouse where Lane was scheduled to appear in 1996.

"An elevator to a person with disabilities is like the stairs to me," lawyer William J. Brown told the justices. "It's the way I get there."

Brown's client wants 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 for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl a second time. Courthouse employees say he also refused offers of help.

Tennessee does not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. Tennessee Solicitor General Michael E. Moore argued, however, that Lane's constitutional rights were not violated and that he has no right to take the state to court.

Tennessee claims that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, and argues that under the Constitution, a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

Representing seven other states, attorney Gene Schaerr said before Tuesday's arguments there's no general constitutional right to make public buildings physically accessible to the disabled.

"It may well be sufficient to provide a couple of courthouse guards who can help a person up the stairs," he told CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

Beth McCallum, a lawyer for groups representing the disabled, counters that without access, fundamental rights are lost.

"When the courthouse doors are closed to people because they have a disability, that cuts off one of the absolute core values of being a citizen in America," she said.

Outside the court Tuesday, protesters chanted, "Justice for all, we won't crawl." Then a disabled woman set aside her wheelchair and clambered up the steps and crawled across the court plaza, joined by a handful of supporters. She was stopped at the steps of the court building by about 10 court officers.

"This is what Tennessee is going to make us do," Becky Ogle of Knoxville, Tenn., a disability activist, yelled as she began crawling.

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

"I hope the justices will realize that if they do away with a state's right to immunity, this type of discrimination will continue across the country," said Beverly Jones, a paralyzed court reporter who has been shut out of courthouses where she works in Tennessee.

Tennessee claims that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, and argues that under the Constitution, a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

That sets up a conflict over states' rights and the powers of Congress. In a series of cases since the late 1990s, the Supreme Court's five-member conservative majority has gradually expanded the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.

Advocates for the disabled maintain that lawsuits like Lane's are an important way to force state governments to follow the requirements of the ADA.

"In many cases, damages are the only means to remedy the very real injuries caused by the state's unlawful and willful neglect," former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and a coalition of disability rights organizations told the justices in a friend-of-the-court filing.

Without the opportunity to collect money, disabled people who may also be poor and unemployed have little incentive to bear the costs of bringing a court challenge, the brief argued.

The ADA guarantees against discrimination on the job, and requires that public buildings and public services be open to the disabled. The law is probably best known for prompting installation of wheelchair ramps and other accommodations in many buildings.

In a similar case three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot be sued by their own employees for failing to comply with the ADA's guarantee against discrimination in the workplace.

While Congress can override the states' usual sovereign immunity in certain extraordinary circumstances, it did not demonstrate why that step was necessary in the case of a nurse demoted after breast cancer treatment, the high court said then.

In court filings, Tennessee argued that the same reasoning applies to private suits over the ADA's separate guarantee of access to public services.

"The legislative record developed in connection with the enactment of the ADA wholly fails to demonstrate any persisting pattern of unconstitutional discrimination against disabled persons by the states," lawyers for Tennessee wrote.

The case is Tennessee v. Lane, 02-1667.
  • Lloyd Vries

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