Slim high court majority backs man in wheelchair

Justices uphold, 5-4, right of disabled to sue state for access to public place

May 18, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court narrowly held yesterday that states are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, ruling that they can be sued for excluding disabled people from courthouses or voting booths or denying them crucial public services.

The 5-4 decision - rejecting a claim of states' rights - turned on the Constitution's demand that states not deny people "the equal protection of the laws." It came on the 50th anniversary of the court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which used the same constitutional provision to overturn state-sanctioned racial segregation.

The five justices in the majority said yesterday that a state's "pattern of unequal treatment" against people with disabilities, like a state's discrimination against blacks, violates the Constitution, and victims of such bias may sue the state.

The four dissenting justices said that states have a "sovereign immunity" that shields them against such claims.

While yesterday's decision arose from a rural Tennessee courthouse that had no ramps or elevators to its second-floor hearing rooms, the high court's ruling will put new pressure on public officials to provide full access to disabled individuals.

The practical impact of the decision in other states is not clear. Since the 1970s, federal law has required public buildings to accommodate people with disabilities. Schools, colleges, libraries and courthouses have installed ramps and elevators. But in some areas, particularly in rural communities, older buildings were not renovated.

"Today's decision is a huge win at a critical time for millions of Americans with disabilities," said Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. It "narrowly rejected a radical reinterpretation of states' rights that would have robbed millions of a vital means of protecting their civil rights."

In 1996, George Lane was summoned to appear at the Polk County, Tenn., courthouse for a misdemeanor driving charge resulting from an accident that put him in a wheelchair. When he arrived at the courthouse, he learned the hearing was on the second floor.

To get to the hearing, he had to crawl up two flights of stairs. When he was called back for a second appearance, he refused and was arrested for failing to appear.

He sued Tennessee under the Americans with Disabilities Act, contending that the state had failed to make "reasonable modifications" to 25 county courthouses to aid people in wheelchairs.

He was joined by Beverly Jones, a disabled court reporter, who said she had lost out on assignments because she could not get to some courtrooms.

Their case became a test of whether the disabilities act could be enforced against the states.

When then-President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law in 1990, it was hailed as a landmark in providing full equality for those with disabilities. But in recent years, there were doubts about whether this federal mandate could be enforced against the states.

In yesterday's decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor abandoned her conservative colleagues and voted with the court's liberal bloc to uphold the disability rights claims when "fundamental rights" are at stake.

Justice John Paul Stevens, speaking for the court, said Congress had enacted the law "against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment" against disabled individuals, "including systematic deprivation of fundamental rights." Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined with Stevens and O'Connor.

The four dissenters, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said they would have voided the entire law. Constitutional rights for the disabled are "quite limited," Rehnquist said. The Constitution "permits a state to classify on the basis of disability so long as it has a rational basis for doing so," he said, including a desire to save money.

Rehnquist was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.

In a separate case yesterday, the court made it easier for financially troubled people to go to bankruptcy court to get relief from education loans or other debts.

Justices sided with a former Tennessee student who claimed she could not afford payments on $4,000 in state-backed education loans.

The state argued that it could not be taken to federal bankruptcy court against its wishes. Justices agreed, 7-2 ,to let Pamela Hood pursue her case.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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