Court considers reach of US disability law

Justices take up the case of a man in a wheelchair who refused to appear in a second-floor courtroom in Tennessee.

The US Constitution mandates that every American is entitled to access to the courts. But for George Lane, that constitutional guarantee got a little murky once he actually arrived at the courthouse steps.

That's because Mr. Lane arrived in a wheelchair.

In 1996, Lane crawled up two flights of stairs after being ordered to appear at his local courthouse in Tennessee to face charges of driving on a suspended license. The courtroom was on the second floor, and there were no elevators or ramps.

The second time he was summoned to the same courthouse on the same charges, however, he refused to crawl.

After being arrested for failing to appear in court, Lane sued the state of Tennessee for $100,000, charging discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Lawyers for Tennessee countered with claims that the state is immune from ADA liability under the 11th Amendment.

Tuesday, the case arrives at the US Supreme Court in a legal dispute that will define for the entire nation whether states may - or may not - be held liable for money damages for alleged violations of the federal disability-rights law.

The case is important because it will signal whether the high court is prepared to continue a recent trend in sharply cutting back congressional power to force state compliance with national civil rights laws.

That prospect has many disability-rights advocates concerned. "We are one case away from Title II [of the ADA] being declared a nullity," says Ira Burnim, an ADA expert at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington.

The intent of the ADA is to help those with disabilities overcome barriers to full participation in American life. In addition to outlawing discrimination based on disability, the law requires that reasonable accommodations be made to facilitate access to public facilities and services. Congress made the law enforceable against the states, empowering individuals to sue a state for money damages for alleged ADA violations.

What is at issue in the Lane case is whether Congress overstepped its authority by failing to accord proper respect to the sovereign power of states.

In certain circumstances, Congress has the power to mandate what states must do. The question in the Lane case is whether the ADA is one of those circumstances.

Tennessee says it is not. In his brief to the court, Tennessee Solicitor General Michael Moore says the state agrees that the ADA represents a "milestone on the path to a more decent, tolerant, progressive society." But Mr. Moore says that Congress overreached in the way it went about trying to achieve its goals: "What is at stake here ... is the preservation of a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the states enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today."

Lane's lawyer, William Brown of Cleveland, Tenn., says that Tennessee violated not only the ADA, but also Lane's right to have access to the courts. "When a state maintains courts that are not accessible to people with disabilities, the state's actions threaten an array of constitutional rights under the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments," Mr. Brown says in his brief to the court. He says Congress is well within its power to overturn state sovereign immunity when national lawmakers are seeking to remedy constitutional violations by the states themselves.

Brown isn't alone in that position. The US Solicitor General's Office is urging the court to uphold the ADA for the same reason. In addition, 12 states and a number of disability and civil rights groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Lane.

Seven states filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Tennessee. "Virtually all of the states ... have undertaken significant efforts in the past several years to make their public buildings more accessible," writes Gene Schaerr in the states' brief supporting Tennessee. "However, as a matter of policy, [the seven states] believe that private federal damage actions against the states, with their attendant costs and risks to state taxpayers, are not warranted."

Others disagree. "Congress enacted Title II of the ADA against a backdrop that included ample evidence that states were unconstitutionally excluding people with disabilities from voting and from accessing the judicial system, prohibiting them from marrying and raising families, [and] warehousing them in institutions in deplorable conditions," writes Timothy Armstrong in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America and 24 other organizations.

Brown, Lane's lawyer, also represents several other disabled Tennesseans seeking access to second-floor courtrooms. He says he's found 25 other local courthouses in Tennessee with no ramps or elevators.

But there has been some progress, he says. The courthouse where Lane crawled up the steps is now fitted with an elevator. That came not as a result of Lane's lawsuit, Brown says, but rather after a warning from the US Justice Department.

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