Supreme Court case might weaken federal protection for the disabled

Issue is authority of Congress to pass laws that control states

January 22, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, showing again its eagerness to settle disputes over Congress' power to pass civil rights laws, agreed yesterday to examine another one: the 1990 law that bars states from discriminating against the disabled.

The law at stake makes states subject to lawsuits that claim discrimination against the disabled in state employment or in state services for the public.

In a separate action, the justices agreed to rule on the constitutionality of state laws that allow voters who are not members of a political party to vote for that party's nominees for state and congressional offices.

Rulings on both cases will come before next summer. By adding those two new cases to its decision workload, the court completed the selection of cases that will be decided by the end of June.

At issue in the disability rights case will be whether disabled people who work for state agencies or take part in state programs will be allowed to file state or federal court lawsuits claiming that their disability has been used against them by the state.

The court took on that issue just days after ruling that state workers could not sue for age bias under another federal law, and raising doubts about the right of state workers to use a federal law to end sex discrimination in pay scales and salaries. Those actions come after years of rulings by the court curbing Congress' authority to pass laws that control the states.

The ruling in the new disability case will have an immediate effect on a lawsuit by 13 disabled inmates at Maryland's Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, who say the prison fails to accommodate them in such services as toilets and showers.

Last June, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that the inmates did have the right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to sue the state of Maryland. But, late last month, that ruling was set aside so the full appeals court could consider the issue -- thus adding to the uncertainty.

If workers or program participants are barred from filing such lawsuits, the federal law that supposedly protects them from bias could be enforced only by the federal government itself. Federal agencies have made clear that they do not have the budgets or resources to carry that load.

The Supreme Court took on the issue in a case from Florida, involving a prison guard who claimed that he was passed over for promotions because he has a heart condition. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the guard could sue the state prison department under the ADA. The state took the issue on to the Supreme Court.

The state's appeal argues that Congress has no power to wipe out, under the federal disabilities law, the states' immunity to lawsuits by private individuals.

Besides granting review of that case, the justices agreed to hear an appeal by four political parties in California -- Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and the Peace and Freedom Party -- that argue that a 1996 referendum which mandated a "blanket primary" is unconstitutional.

A blanket primary election uses a single ballot, listing all party and independent candidates. Any voter, affiliated with any party or independent, uses that ballot.

Besides California, only Alaska, Louisiana and Washington use a blanket primary system. But the outcome of the case could also affect the constitutionality of the "open primary" system used in 21 states. In open primaries, people can vote on any party's ballot, even if not members of that party.

The remaining 25 states -- including Maryland -- use some version of a "closed primary," allowing voters to cast ballots only for parties with which they are registered. The Republican Party in Maryland opted to open its primary this year to independents; the Democratic primary remains open only to registered Democrats.

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