Legal Note: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Courthouse Access

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Much of America's litigation takes place in older courthouses that were not originally designed with consideration of access to them by disabled persons. More recently constructed courthouses have been designed to provide access for the disabled, and many older buildings have been remodeled to do so. Yet some other courthouses, such as those lacking elevators, continue to present logistical problems for the disabled seeking to use them. Recent lawsuits challenging inadequate access, brought under federal antidiscrimination law, have raised important questions for court administrators and have posed for constitutional scholars the question of the extent to which a state enjoys sovereign immunity when one of its citizens accuses it of failing to comply with federal law requiring access for the disabled.

In Tennessee v. Lane, 124 S.Ct. 1978 (2004), a divided Supreme Court rejected the argument that suits from private individuals against state governments pursuant to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) violated state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Instead the Court held that, as to the specific issue of courthouse access by those with disabilities, Title II constituted a valid exercise of congressional authority under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment.

George Lane and Beverly Jones filed suit against the State of Tennessee in August 1998. They alleged that the state had violated their rights under Title II of the ADA by refusing to make county courthouses readily accessible to citizens who used wheelchairs. Lane, a paraplegic, had been charged with criminal conduct and was compelled to attend a hearing on the second story of a building that had no elevator. To make his first appearance, Lane crawled up two flights of stairs. During a return visit, Lane refused either to crawl up the stairs or to be carried up the stairs by court officers; consequently, he was arrested and jailed for failure to appear. Jones, who was also a paraplegic, was a court reporter. She alleged that she had lost work due to her inability to gain access to various county courthouses.

The state argued that the Eleventh Amendment's principle of state sovereign immunity barred such claims and moved to dismiss the suit, but the district court denied the motion. When the state appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States intervened to defend the statute's constitutionality. The court of appeals held the case in abeyance pending a Supreme Court decision in Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001). In Garrett, the Court held that the Eleventh Amendment prohibited private suits seeking monetary damages from state governments under Title I of the ADA concerning employment discrimination, although it left open the question of whether suits under Title II alleging discrimination in pubic services, programs, or activities were similarly prohibited.

Following Garrett, the Sixth Circuit addressed the Title II question in a different lawsuit also raising questions related to the use of courts. A hearing-impaired litigant had sought damages for state failure to accommodate his disability in a child custody proceeding. Citing Garrett, the Sixth Circuit sitting en banc ruled that Title II suits based on equal protection principles were barred by the Eleventh Amendment, whereas Title II suits alleging a due process violation were not. Popovich v. Cuyahoga County Court, 276 F.3d 808 (6th Cir. 2002). Employing that rationale, the Sixth Circuit panel hearing the Lane case first affirmed the denial of the state's motion to dismiss, and then, in an amended opinion, explained that the lawsuit, by alleging a denial of the right of access to a court, necessarily involved a due-process claim. 315 F.3d 680 (6th Cir. 2003). Recognizing that the factual record below was incomplete, the court of appeals remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. …