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Supreme Court Watch

January 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The court approved police roadblocks to collect tips about unsolved crimes, and the justices heard arguments about the right of the disabled to sue states which have not complied with federal disabilities law. As usual, Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune is here to tell us what happened inside the court’s chambers today.

Let’s start with the disabilities law. It seems like we’ve had several conversations sitting here about these challenges to the Americans With Disabilities Act. What was similar and what was different in today’s arguments?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. I mean this court has spent an enormous amount of time deciding the scope and sweep of this landmark law that Congress passed in 1990 to ensure that the disabled would not be discriminated against on the job or that they would have access to public services, public buildings and public accommodations.

Today the court took up a case that asks whether states must or states can be sued by private citizens, by the disabled, if they fail to make their buildings, their courthouses and other public buildings accessible to the disabled.

GWEN IFILL: Very dramatic story that the plaintiffs had to tell about literally being forced to crawl up the steps of a courthouse.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. This case involves a challenge by several people with disabilities in the state of Tennessee who, as you said, were forced to either crawl up the stairs of the courthouse to get into the courtroom or ask someone, in some cases, a total stranger to carry them up the stairs.

They argued that the state was violating provisions in the ADA, the disabilities law, because those buildings were not accessible to them and they asked the state to comply with the law and to pay them money damages.

Now the state answered back that it could not be subject to these kind of private lawsuits by disabled citizens and that therefore it did not have to answer to their claims.

GWEN IFILL: It seems that’s what the fight has always been about before, whether Congress intended states to be liable under the strictures of this law or whether … but this seemed to be more about a basic access to a government building not just to government entitlements.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This case involves a very complex legal issue that has deeply embroiled these justices in recent terms. That’s the issue of states’ rights and whether or not Congress has the power, has the authority, to subject states to lawsuits by private citizens who want money for violating certain federal laws, age discrimination laws, wage discrimination laws, patent laws, trademark laws.

In recent terms the Supreme Court has said states can’t be sued by private citizens for violating those laws. And today the court took up the question of whether or not states could be sued for violating provisions of the ADA in terms of access to public buildings.

Now keep in mind that just three years ago the court ruled states could not be sued for employment discrimination under the ADA by disabled people who say they were victims of on-the-job discrimination.

This case involves another provision of the ADA, whether or not they can be sued for not providing access to public buildings.

The justices today in arguments today indicated that perhaps they may see this case differently, but the two justices that we look for, because these cases are always decided 5-4, the two justices that we look to, justices O’Connor and Kennedy were largely silent.

GWEN IFILL: They didn’t say anything. Normally you have the four liberal justices who are basically coming down on the idea that maybe these states could be held liable.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Exactly, and the five more conservatives have dramatically rewritten the law in this area to say that states could not be sued and that congress did not have power to subject states to these lawsuits. But today justices O’Connor and Kennedy were largely quiet.

Justice Kennedy on several occasions seemed very concerned that states were violating the ADA, were not providing access to courthouses where, of course, as the disabled people have said they have a fundamental right to access.

GWEN IFILL: We had a discussion on this program last night about the pivotal role Justice O’Connor always plays. It sounds like she’s poised to do that again in this case.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Her issue in previous cases have been whether or not there are other ways to make states comply with the ADA.

For example, the federal government could file a lawsuit or there may be state laws so whether or not those options are available to the plaintiffs could also dictate her opinion in this case.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve also talked at this table before about this issue of roadblocks and when they can be used and when they shouldn’t be used. Today’s case was about someone arrested for drunken driving when they were stopped at an informational roadblock.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This involves a case that came out of a suburban police department that outside of Chicago. They had set up a roadblock to get information about a fatal hit-and-run accident that occurred at this same intersection a week before.

And during the course of stopping and asking motorists if they had seen anything the previous week and passing out flyers with information and numbers to call a motorist drove into that roadblock, swerved into the roadblock.

Police noticed alcohol on his breath, had him pull over, gave him a sobriety test, arrested him for driving under the influence. He subsequently was convicted. He challenged his conviction and said that roadblock was illegal because it was too general.

It was a way to just stop and ferret out information about any crime. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. But today the court in a 6-3 decision reversed that ruling and said that these types of roadblocks that were designed just to get information about solving a crime did not violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which, as you know protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

And so the court said these kinds of roadblocks would be permitted when officers were trying to solve and seek information about a serious crime and were … didn’t really involve any significant intrusions on a motorist’s right to privacy.

GWEN IFILL: Does this throw the doors open now to motorists being stopped for any reason anywhere?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No it does not. And the court has been careful in the past to say that certain stops require suspicion that a person has done something wrong. It has allowed exceptions.

It allows sobriety checkpoints to make our roads safer and border check points to make sure that people are entering the country legally. This time it has allowed another exception.

We’ll allow roadblocks to get information about a crime. But in 2000 the court said it will not allow these kinds of general roadblocks to ferret out information of any wrongdoing on the part of a driver — let’s say drug trafficking or drugs inside of the car.

It will not allow those kinds of just general roadblocks, but today’s decision, the justices said in an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, today’s roadblock was different.

Police in this case were not searching for wrongdoing on the part of a driver, any kind of crime a driver might be committing. What they were looking for was evidence, help, assistance, in solving a previous crime.

GWEN IFILL: This was a 6-3 decision not the 5-4 we’re used to.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right — with Justice Breyer on the side of the more conservative side.

GWEN IFILL: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you very much.