Supreme Court Roundup: The 2003-2004 Term Brought Significant Challenges to Federal Powers

By Williams, Charles F. | Social Education, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Roundup: The 2003-2004 Term Brought Significant Challenges to Federal Powers


Williams, Charles F., Social Education


There was much going on as the Court closed out its term in June. Among the more significant rulings was Tennessee v. Lane, No. 02-1667, in which the Court upheld Congress's authority to subject states to damage suits for violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Three other cases important to the administration's "War on Terror" were also widely watched: Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, No. 03-6696, Rumsfeld v. Padilla et al., No. 03-1027, Rasul et al. v. Bush et al. No. 03-334. In these cases, the Court ruled that citizens and non-citizens alike may challenge their designation as "enemy combatants." Yet one of the most important opinions issued by the Court all term was one of its least expected, Blakely v. Washington, No. 02-1632, which called into question the constitutionality of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federalism

Tennessee v. Lane was brought by George Lane and other paraplegics who use wheelchairs and are unable to climb stairs. They claimed that they were denied access to the Tennessee state court system in violation of Title II of the ADA, which provides that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity."

Lane's predicament made news when he appeared in court to face criminal charges and had to crawl up the steps of a county courthouse that lacked an elevator. When be returned to the courthouse at a later date for another hearing, he refused the options of either again crawling up the steps or being carried to the courtroom by officers. He was then arrested and jailed for failure to appear in the courtroom.

Lane and his co-plaintiffs sued for money damages under the ADA. They argued that Tide II requires states to provide reasonable accommodations, or "modifications," to allow otherwise eligible persons to participate fully in public services, programs, or activities. The plaintiffs contended that an elevator was exactly the kind of reasonable modification the state had a duty to provide.

Tennessee responded that it was immune from this suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, a provision that has been interpreted as barring suits from being brought in federal court against state governmental entities unless either the state consents to being sued or Congress validly abrogates the states' immunity. Lane countered that in adopting Title II, Congress did clearly state its intention to abrogate the states' immunity when it provided in the law itself that "A state shall not be immune under the eleventh amendment to the Constitution of the United States from an action in federal or state court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter." 42 U.S.C. [section] 12202.

The state, however, cited an earlier Supreme Court case, Board of Trustees of the Univ. of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001), in which the Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that even though Congress sought to abrogate the states' immunity from suit under the employment provisions of Title I of the ADA, it lacked the power to do so. Likewise, Tennessee argued, Congress also lacked the power to abrogate states' immunity under Title II despite its desire to do so. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit ruled for Lane.

Because the resolution of this argument could affect the balance of power between the state and federal governments, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In an opinion released May 17, 2004, the justices voted 5-4 that Congress did have the power to abrogate states' immunity from suit under Title II. For the source of that power, the Court pointed to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gives Congress "the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of" the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the majority were Justices Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.

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