The court said that state prisoners whose constitutional rights are violated behind bars can win damages, but justices stopped short of deciding a more significant question: whether states can be opened to broader suits under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that lower courts should reconsider the case of 41-year-old Georgia inmate Tony Goodman, who contends he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow he could not turn his wheelchair.
Goodman had been supported in the case by the Bush administration, which argued that lawsuits should be allowed under the disabilities act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled.
The Supreme Court had previously ruled that people in state prisons are protected by the law, and the follow-up case asked whether individual prisoners have recourse in the courts.
Tuesday's opinion left room for some lawsuits, but justices delayed deciding how much room.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, said that both sides have a chance to "create a more substantial factual record" before the justices reconsider the issue.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring, was the deciding vote the last time justices ruled on the scope of the 1990 law, siding with the four more liberal court members in a 2004 decision which held that states could be sued for damages for not providing the disabled access to courts.
Stevens cited that opinion on Tuesday and said that it should be a "guide" as Goodman's case winds its way through the court system again.