Advocates Plan "Stair Crawl" At Supreme Court
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
January 8, 2004
WASHINGTON, DC--To demonstrate the humiliating situation George Lane was put in at the steps of Polk County Courthouse, in Benton, Tennessee, disability rights advocates plan to crawl up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday morning when his case is to be heard there.
The case, Tennessee v. Lane and Jones, once again pits the rights of millions of people with disabilities against "states' rights".
Lane filed suit against Tennessee in 1998 for violating his right to equal access to the courts under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Because there was no elevator or other accommodations at the Polk County Courthouse, Lane, who lost a leg in an auto accident, had to crawl up two flights of stairs for an arraignment on misdemeanor traffic charges. When a pretrial hearing was later scheduled, Lane made his way to the ground floor of the courthouse. Once there, he refused to again crawl up the two flights of stairs to the courtroom. Even though he sent word to the judge that he was downstairs, officials arrested and jailed Lane for "failure to appear" in court.
Lane then sued the state for failing to follow the 1990 federal anti-discrimination law.
Beverly Jones, a court reporter who uses a wheelchair, later joined Lane in his suit. She claims that the state's failure to make county courthouses accessible to her wheelchair has presented a hardship for her. Jones contends that she was unable to even enter four county courthouses where lawyers had hired her to record court proceedings. She listed another 19 Tennessee counties that have inaccessible courthouses.
After lower courts ruled for Lane and Jones, Tennessee's Attorney General Paul Summers appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Summers is arguing that people cannot sue states under the ADA because states have "sovereign immunity". That argument worked two years ago in the case of Alabama v. Garrett when the high court ruled that a state employee with a disability could not sue her employer.
The Tennessee case, however, has to do with Title II of the ADA which requires "public services, programs or activities" to be made accessible. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled earlier that states can be sued if they violate citizens rights of due process -- which is a function of the courts.
A number of states, disability groups and legal associations have filed briefs supporting Lane and Jones. Groups including ADA Watch, the National Coalition for Disability Rights and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law are organizing several events surrounding Tuesday's oral arguments.
"Sadly, the Supreme Court case puts Tennessee on a collision course with the ADA and the millions of people in all 50 states whose lives have been enriched by the law," wrote Jim Ward, president of the National Coalition for Disability Rights, in an opinion piece for Wednesday's Memphis Commercial Appeal. "It would be tragic if Tennessee's proud legacy were tarnished by being known as the state that turned back the clock on this progress."
"Tennessee in role of ADA spoiler" (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
"State of Tennessee v. George Lane and Beverly Jones" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)