Supreme Court Watch
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MARGARET WARNER: Since the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1990, the Supreme Court has repeatedly limited its scope. But today the court upheld the right of the disabled to sue states that haven’t complied with one portion of the law. Here to explain the 5-4 decision is Marcia Coyle, Washington bureau chief for the National Law Journal. Welcome back, Marcia.
MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start by having you give us a little bit of background on the lead plaintiff in this case, George Lane.
MARCIA COYLE: George Lane filed a suit against the state of Tennessee back in 1998. He is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. And he was called to a court hearing in a local courthouse in Tennessee that was not accessible to wheelchairs. For his first appearance he crawled up two flights of stairs to get to the courtroom. The second appearance he refused to crawl up the stairs. He also refused an offer to be carried to the courtroom. Because he did not appear, he was arrested and jailed for contempt. He sued, along with some other wheelchair-bound disabled persons, he sued Tennessee claiming that Tennessee by not providing access to this courthouse had violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, in going to the Supreme Court with this case, he really was bucking a couple of very strong trends from this court, wasn’t he?
MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. And that’s why this case is so important. In a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has been trimming back Congress’s law- making power under the Constitution, primarily in the area of enforcing civil rights. And at the same time, the court has been enhancing the 11th Amendment sovereign immunity of states from suits for money damages when they violate federal laws. A second series of decisions by the court has involved the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, as we call it. There the court has narrowly interpreted several key provisions of the act, which has angered and disappointed a number of disability activists.
MARGARET WARNER: And all this came together in fact in an important ruling just three years ago that on its face would seem similar to this.
MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Three years ago the Supreme Court took a look at another section of the ADA called Title I, which prohibits discrimination in employment, state discrimination in employment. And the court there struck down Congress’s enactment, saying basically that states were immune from private suits for damages in the employment context.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So now tell us about the majority opinion today and the reasoning behind it, written by Justice Stevens.
MARCIA COYLE: Justice Stevens first spoke Congress’ law-making authority. Congress can abrogate or invalidate a state’s sovereign immunity when it’s enacting legislation pursuant to Section V of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment, as you know, guarantees you and me the equal protection of law and also due process of law. Section V says “Congress, you enforce this amendment.” So if Congress acts properly under Section V, a state’s sovereign immunity may fall.
Justice Stevens said that Congress’ Section V power is very broad but it’s not unlimited. When Congress enacts legislation under Section V, that legislation has to be proportional and congruent, which means there has to be a — proportional to the injury that Congress is trying to remedy and congruent meaning that the ends they choose– this law, the ADA, for example– is a proper response — Congress doesn’t go too far in trying to remedy the injury.
MARGARET WARNER: And so this particular case or this particular issue, the right of people to have access to the courts, he decided or the majority said was an important enough right to trump, essentially, the state’s sovereign immunity.
MARCIA COYLE: Right. Justice Stevens, in order to see if the ADA passed this test, looked to the history of when congress was enacting Title II. And Justice Stevens found that there were still laws on the books at the time that prevented disabled people from being jurors — that prevented disabled persons from marrying. There were even laws on the books that disqualified so-called “idiots” from voting. He found that there was a pervasive pattern of discrimination by the states in their programs, activities and services, which is what Title II roots out, and in particular he found it in the provision of judicial services to the disabled.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what was Justice… Justice Rehnquist wrote the… dissented and wrote for four justices. And what was his… I gather his was probably also a familiar argument.
MARCIA COYLE: It was. He took the opposite view of the history and the evidence of whether states have discriminated in the past against disabled persons in their programs and services. This is a fundamental divide on the court. The conservative majority for the most part finds that Congress has not found enough evidence of discrimination to go forward and enact a law that applies to the states. The members of the court on the more liberal wing read the record differently. They find evidence. So he felt that Title II could not be sustained here, that Congress went well beyond its lawmaking power.
MARGARET WARNER: So the reason this case turned out differently than the employment discrimination case was Justice O’Connor.
MARCIA COYLE: Yes it was.
MARGARET WARNER: She flipped.
MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. She was the key vote. She has generally been on the side of the court that is a strong supporter of state’s rights.
MARGARET WARNER: So was there any indication as to why she flipped? She did not write any kind of concurring opinion or anything that told you why she went this way.
MARCIA COYLE: Well, the one indication I think in the opinion itself is that Justice Stevens narrowed its application to services provided by the courts. During the oral arguments in the case, Justice O’Connor also appeared sympathetic and concerned about access to the courts by disabled persons and the whole range of rights that flow from that. It’s not just getting to the courtroom, to the hearing. It’s your ability to serve on a jury. It’s your ability to attend every stage of a trial. So I think she was sympathetic and I think narrowing the opinion caused her to switch over.
MARGARET WARNER: So is the ruling… do advocates for the disabled and people on the other side feel it really is that narrow, that it only applies to access to courthouses and judicial services?
MARCIA COYLE: I think we’re going to see that play out in additional litigation. Advocates for the disabled rightly call this a victory because they could have lost Title II if the court had gone the other way. But they also predict that states will fight out the meaning of “access to the courts” and also whether it will apply to other kinds of programs and services that the state sponsors.
MARGARET WARNER: To be continued. Marcia, thanks again.
MARCIA COYLE: You’re welcome.