Court Boosts Civil Rights Law for Disabled ; by Ruling in Favor of a Paraplegic Who Crawled Up to a Second-Floor Courtroom, Justices Signal Possible Shift Away from States' Rights

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Court Boosts Civil Rights Law for Disabled ; by Ruling in Favor of a Paraplegic Who Crawled Up to a Second-Floor Courtroom, Justices Signal Possible Shift Away from States' Rights


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The US Supreme Court has upheld the right of disabled individuals to sue states for equal access to public services and facilities.

In a major 5-to-4 decision announced Monday, the nation's highest court ruled that Congress acted within its authority when it made states liable in federal court for failing to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ruling marks an important exception to the high court's recent federalism precedents, with a majority of justices upholding the portion of the disabilities law that empowers individuals to sue states for noncompliance with the landmark civil rights statute.

The decision comes in a Tennessee case involving access to the courts in which a man in a wheelchair was forced to crawl up the stairs to comply with an order that he appear in court. The courthouse had no elevator or ramps.

"It's an extremely important victory for us," says Ira Burnim, an ADA expert at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. "This appears to protect Title II of the ADA against future constitutional challenges."

By upholding an individual's right to sue, the decision gives a Supreme Court endorsement to an important incentive established by Congress to force states to comply with the national law. And it will help ensure an aggressive effort to strive toward achieving the broader goal of the ADA for the disabled - full participation as equals in American society.

The majority justices said Congress established a pattern of unconstitutional discrimination against the disabled by the states in denying equal access to the courts. Evidence of such a pattern was necessary to properly abrogate state sovereign immunity under Supreme Court precedents.

"The long history of unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has persisted despite several state and federal legislative efforts to remedy the problem," Justice John Paul Stevens writes for the majority.

"Congress was justified in concluding that the difficult and intractable problem of disability discrimination warranted added ... measures," Justice Stevens writes.

In addition to the civil rights implications of the ruling, the decision is also significant because it represents an apparent shift in the high court's federalism jurisprudence. It has been brought about by one justice - Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice O'Connor has provided the crucial fifth vote for all the landmark federalism decisions since 1995, bolstering states' rights at the expense of national power. In a move away from that trend, Justice O'Connor last term voted to uphold the Family and Medical Leave Act. And now this term she has voted to uphold Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These positions suggest that Justice O'Connor's desire to uphold the principles of federalism may no longer extend to areas touching on civil rights.

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Court Boosts Civil Rights Law for Disabled ; by Ruling in Favor of a Paraplegic Who Crawled Up to a Second-Floor Courtroom, Justices Signal Possible Shift Away from States' Rights
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