Moments in Disability History 8
Alabama Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.
During his 24 years as a federal district court judge in Montgomery, Alabama, Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr., made numerous revolutionary decisions that were the building blocks for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Between 1956 and 1966, Judge Johnson declared segregated public transportation unconstitutional, ordered the integration of public parks, interstate bus terminals, restaurants and rest rooms, and libraries and museums; required that African Americans be registered to vote; ordered Alabama Governor George Wallace to allow the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery; ordered the first comprehensive statewide school desegregation plan; and became the first judge to apply the equal protection clause of the Constitution to state law discriminating against women.
On July 24, 1980, nearly 10 years to the day before the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bill Moyers' interview of Judge Johnson was broadcast as "Judge: The Law and Frank Johnson" in two parts on Bill Moyers Journal by WNET/Thirteen, New York. In this segment from that interview, Judge Johnson describes how litigation evolved from property rights and capitalism to human and civil rights, from divergent issues between two parties to class action lawsuits, and from redress of past wrongs to prospective relief. This evolution enabled revolutionary court decisions that provided the infrastructure leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In his 1971 decision, Wyatt v. Stickney, Judge Johnson established the precedent that people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities who reside in institutions have a Constitutional right to treatment. In his order issued April 13, 1972, Judge Johnson identified 35 minimum standards for adequate treatment. These standards included 14 statements of "rights". The 33 year Wyatt litigation ended on December 5, 2003. The video Legacy of Wyatt describes how Wyatt, as "patient rights" litigation, gave greater visibility to the potential impact of the legal system on improving the lives of people with disabilities.