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.
"The ruling means that states are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act; that there is no immunity or protection from many kinds of lawsuits like this," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "I think that as a result of the ruling we will see more lawsuits by citizens seeking better access against state entities."
In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA, so Monday's outcome was unexpected.
"The Supreme Court usually looks for ways to limit the impact of this disabilities law," says Cohen. However, "the lower courts that had looked at the case had agreed that Tennessee ought to have no immunity from this sort of lawsuit."
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.
"Congress utterly failed to identify any evidence that disabled persons were denied constitutionally protected access to judicial proceedings," Rehnquist wrote.
The majority appeared to limit its ruling to the fairly narrow sphere of courthouses and court services, but the rationale could be used to allow private suits on other grounds.
Scalia said the ruling will open the door to more lawsuits and allows judges to act like legislators.
"Requiring access for disabled persons to all public buildings cannot remotely be considered a means of `enforcing' the Fourteenth Amendment,'" Scalia wrote.
"It is past time to draw a line limiting the uncontrolled spread of a well-intentioned textual distortion," he wrote.
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 the latest case, Tennessee argued that the same reasoning applies to private suits over the ADA's separate guarantee of access to public services.
Advocates for the disabled maintain that 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.
If Monday's ruling had gone the other way, Lane's options would have been limited to asking a court to ask the state to fix the problem.
The case is Tennessee v. Lane, 02-1667.
In other cases Monday: