High Court Upholds Access To Courts
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
May 17, 2004
WASHINGTON, DC--A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that individuals can sue states for failing to provide access to the courts.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court found that states must follow Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- which guarantees accessibility of public facilities and services -- when it comes to the courts, or face lawsuits from individuals.
Disability rights advocates called the decision a victory, following a series of Supreme Court rulings that have limited the scope of the federal 1990 anti-discrimination law. The ruling means that Congress had the authority to order states to make sure citizens with disabilities are not denied their rights to "equal protection under the laws" as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"Today's decision is a huge win at a critical time for millions of Americans with disabilities," said Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in a statement. "The Supreme Court today narrowly rejected a radical interpretation of states' rights that would have robbed millions of a vital means of protecting their civil rights."
Andrew J. Imparato, President of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said, "Five justices on the Supreme Court, including Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, have made an important ruling today that recognizes the history of unconstitutional discrimination against people with disabilities by State governments. For this ruling to come down on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision is appropriate and welcome."
The case, Tennessee v. Lane et al., was brought against the state in 1998 by three Tennesseans who claimed they had been denied access to the courts because of their disabilities.
George Lane tried to sue the state for $100,000 for violating his right to equal access to Polk County Courthouse. Because there was no elevator or other accommodations at the 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 rescheduled, Lane 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 later said the judge and court staff stood at the top of the stairs and laughed at him.
Beverly Jones, a court reporter who uses a wheelchair, joined Lane in his suit, claiming that the state's failure to make county courthouses accessible to her created a hardship and limited the jobs available to her. Jones said 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.
Ralph Ramsey joined the suit after a Tennessee judge had ruled against him in a separate civil case. Ramsey had not been able to defend himself in the civil suit because there was no elevator to reach the second floor courtroom where his case was being heard. The judge ordered the case to proceed without Ramsey and without moving the trial.
After lower courts ruled for the Lane, Jones and Ramsey, Tennessee's Attorney General Paul Summers appealed 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 in the case of Alabama v. Garrett when the high court in February 2001 ruled that a state employee with a disability could not sue her employer under Title I of the ADA, which covers equal employment opportunity.
Some experts noted that the Supreme Court's vote on Monday was close, with the moderate conservative Justice O'Connor siding with the four liberal members of the high court rather than the four more conservative justices. The ruling also dealt narrowly with Title II and the issue of access to the courts. Whether it applies to barriers to other government facilities and services will likely have to be worked out through future courts.
In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, "Indeed, there is nothing in the legislative record or statutory findings to indicate that disabled persons were systematically denied the right to be present at criminal trials, denied the meaningful opportunity to be heard in civil cases, unconstitutionally excluded from jury service, or denied the right to attend criminal trials."
"Tennessee v. Lane Et Al." (U.S. Supreme Court)
"Supreme Court Decision in Lane vs. Tennessee an Historic Ruling, Says N.O.D." (National Organization on Disability)
"High Court Upholds Access To State Courts: State of Tennessee v. Lane et al" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)