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.
Georgia prison officials had described Goodman as a chronic lawsuit filer who filed dozens of complaints contesting things like the temperature and lighting in his cell. He is in prison for drug possession and aggravated assault.
He contends that he suffered serious injuries trying to hoist himself from his wheelchair onto the toilet in his cell. His case returns to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting this week onto replace O'Connor. She will leave the court as soon as her successor is confirmed, and her vote will not count in any pending cases.
Georgia and a dozen other states argued that Congress overstepped its bounds with the disabilities law and that states should be immune from inmate lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court debated Tuesday whether two oil companies could be sued for setting up now-defunct joint ventures that allegedly inflated gas prices in the late 1990s.
In spirited questioning, the justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, seemed skeptical of arguments by a lawyer for 23,000 gas distributors that ChevronTexaco Corp. and Shell Oil Co. violated antitrust laws and fixed prices.
Roberts described the gas distributors' arguments as "a very artificial hook." Other justices, including David Souter and Stephen Breyer, wondered whether the arguments were weak because the price was set by the legitimately formed joint venture.
In 1998, when ChevronTexaco was still Texaco, the company joined with Shell to form Equilon Enterprises and Motiva Enterprises to handle refining and marketing of their gasoline. Equilon focused on the western United States, while Motiva handled the eastern United States and Saudi Arabia.
The two ventures charged the same wholesale price for Texaco and Shell gasoline, which were sold as separate products under the companies' brand names.
In 1999, several gas distributors filed a class-action lawsuit in California, alleging that Texaco and Shell had used Equilon to fix gas prices in violation of antitrust provisions of the Sherman Act.
A trial court judge dismissed the lawsuit against the oil companies. But the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed, ruling the case should go forward because there was evidence that the ventures had improperly restrained trade.
The cases are Texaco v. Dagher, 04-805 and Shell Oil v. Dagher, 04-814.