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. …