Justices Hear Tennessee Court Accessibility Case
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
January 13, 2004
WASHINGTON, DC--People in wheelchairs filled the aisles at the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, while demonstrators outside chanted "Justice for all! We won't crawl!"
They were at the high court to let the nine Justices know how important the Americans with Disabilities Act is to them and more than 50 million other people with disabilities.
The Justices heard arguments in the case of Tennessee v. Lane and Jones, which will be decided in a few months. To be answered is the question of whether Congress had the power to allow individuals to sue a state for damages when the state fails to follow the 1990 anti-discrimination law's accessibility provisions.
George Lane sued Tennessee for $100,000 in 1998 for violating his right to equal access to state and county courts.
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 stairs to the courtroom. He also refused to be carried by court employees. Lane sent word to the judge that he was downstairs, but the judge ordered him arrested and jailed for "failure to appear" in court.
Lane sued the state under Title II of the ADA which prohibits government entities from denying public services, programs and activities to individuals on the basis of a disability. Title II also allows people to seek damages from government entities, including states, when those access rights have been violated.
Beverly Jones, a court reporter who uses a wheelchair, joined Lane in his suit. She claims that the state's failure to make county courthouses accessible to her and her wheelchair has presented a hardship for her by limiting the jobs available to her. Jones contends that she was unable to 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 the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution does not allow individual citizens to sue states or local governments for damages, except in specific circumstances. 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 under Title I of the ADA.
A ruling in the case is important because it could determine if people have the ability to sue states or local governments under the ADA if those governments have discriminated against them. This ability has been seen as a powerful tool to get governments to change how they serve their citizens that have disabilities. Without it, citizens would have little influence in such matters.
"Congress has the power to ensure all of us have rights as citizens," William J. Brown, an attorney for Lane and Jones, told the court Tuesday. "All of us have a fundamental right of access to the courts."
By various accounts from those in the court room, Justice Antonin Scalia seemed the most aggressive toward those arguing for the Lane and Jones.
"The handicapped not getting an elevator may not be a constitutional violation," Scalia said at one point. "An inaccessible voting place means nothing at all. It merely means the state didn't go out of its way to accommodate the handicapped."
One observer mentioned that Scalia referred to those protected by the ADA as "handicaps".
"Crawling up stairs at a courthouse near you" (Slate.com)
"Can disabled woman sue state?" (Knight Ridder News via Bradenton Herald)
"Tennessee v. Lane: The Legal Issues and the Implications for People with Disabilities" (NCD Policy Briefing Paper)
"Tennessee v. Lane and Jones" (Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law)
"State of Tennessee v. George Lane and Beverly Jones" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)