Judge Says Courthouse Accessibility Case Will Move Ahead
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
June 3, 2004
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE--People with disabilities scored a victory on May 17 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals could sue states for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to make courthouses accessible.
The high court did not mean that George Lane and Beverly Jones, who had tried to sue the State of Tennessee in 1998, had won their suit. It just meant that they had the right to sue. Then the court sent the case back to Tennessee for the actual suit to move forward.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell said the case would move quickly, like "a forced Roman march".
"By any standard this is an old case, and it's simply time to get it over one way or another," Campbell said during a status hearing in his Nashville courtroom, the Associated Press reported. "There won't be much tolerance for casual delay."
Before moving on with Lane's suit, Campbell will have to decide whether to grant class-action status to the case. If so, as many as 250,000 Tennesseans with disabilities could become part of the suit. He has scheduled a July 12 hearing on the matter.
Campbell must also determine whether the state can be sued separately from 25 counties who are being sued because their courthouses are not accessible. A trial on the lawsuit against the counties is set for November 2, but lawyers for Lane and Jones, along with those representing the counties, said they need the state's participation in the current case. Campbell is expected to rule quickly on a motion to consolidate the state and county cases.
On Tuesday, Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers argued in a court filing that Lane and Jones are not entitled to damages from the state. Summers also said that the judge should deny the requests for class-action status.
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 in 1996. 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 failing 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's suit, claiming that the state's failure to make county courthouses accessible created a hardship and limited the jobs available to her. Jones said she was unable to enter four county courthouses where lawyers had hired her to record court proceedings. She listed another 19 Tennessee counties that had inaccessible courthouses.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that states must follow Title II of the ADA -- which guarantees accessibility of public facilities and services -- when it comes to the courts, or face potential lawsuits from individuals.
Disability rights advocates called the decision a victory, following a series of high court rulings that had limited the scope of the federal 1990 anti-discrimination law. The ruling meant 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.
"Judge says disabled courthouse access case will continue quickly" (Associated Press via WSMV.com)
"High Court Upholds Access To State Courts: State of Tennessee v. Lane et al" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)