The US Supreme Court has upheld the right of disabled individuals to sue states for equal access to public services and facilities.
In a major 5-to-4 decision announced Monday, the nation's highest court ruled that Congress acted within its authority when it made states liable in federal court for failing to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ruling marks an important exception to the high court's recent federalism precedents, with a majority of justices upholding the portion of the disabilities law that empowers individuals to sue states for noncompliance with the landmark civil rights statute.
The decision comes in a Tennessee case involving access to the courts in which a man in a wheelchair was forced to crawl up the stairs to comply with an order that he appear in court. The courthouse had no elevator or ramps.
"It's an extremely important victory for us," says Ira Burnim, an ADA expert at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. "This appears to protect Title II of the ADA against future constitutional challenges."
By upholding an individual's right to sue, the decision gives a Supreme Court endorsement to an important incentive established by Congress to force states to comply with the national law. And it will help ensure an aggressive effort to strive toward achieving the broader goal of the ADA for the disabled - full participation as equals in American society.
The majority justices said Congress established a pattern of unconstitutional discrimination against the disabled by the states in denying equal access to the courts. Evidence of such a pattern was necessary to properly abrogate state sovereign immunity under Supreme Court precedents.
"The long history of unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has persisted despite several state and federal legislative efforts to remedy the problem," Justice John Paul Stevens writes for the majority.
"Congress was justified in concluding that the difficult and intractable problem of disability discrimination warranted added ... measures," Justice Stevens writes.
In addition to the civil rights implications of the ruling, the decision is also significant because it represents an apparent shift in the high court's federalism jurisprudence. It has been brought about by one justice - Sandra Day O'Connor.
Justice O'Connor has provided the crucial fifth vote for all the landmark federalism decisions since 1995, bolstering states' rights at the expense of national power. In a move away from that trend, Justice O'Connor last term voted to uphold the Family and Medical Leave Act. And now this term she has voted to uphold Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These positions suggest that Justice O'Connor's desire to uphold the principles of federalism may no longer extend to areas touching on civil rights.
Some legal analysts say the high court's federalism revolution may have stalled.
"Stalled is the right word," says Michael Greve, director of the federalism project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "One way of putting it is that among all the strands of federalism jurisprudence ... it's hard to see that any of them have any bite any longer."
Mr. Greve says the high court is apparently reluctant to take additional steps in the federalism area. He says they declined to hear a number of cases that would have brought the issue to the high court.
"Either they can't count the votes or genuinely think enough is enough and that we've sort of arrived at a resting point," he says.
In his dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist says the ADA decision can not be reconciled with a 2001 federalism decision of the high court, a decision in which Justice O'Connor was in the majority.
The chief justice says that contrary to the majority decision, Congress did not establish a pattern of unconstitutional conduct by the states. He adds that there is a crucial difference between access to a courtroom and access to the courts.
"We have never held that a person has a constitutional right to make his way into a courtroom without any external assistance," Chief Justice Rehnquist writes.
Justice Stevens counters in the majority opinion that the ADA does not require the states to use any and all means to make judicial services accessible. He says less costly measures than structural changes like ramps and elevators are permitted.
One alternative suggested by the Tennessee plaintiff was to hold court for any disabled individuals in a room on the first floor of the courthouse.
The opinion stems from the case of George Lane, who sued the state of Tennessee for failing to provide access to a second-floor courtroom.
Mr. Lane had been ordered to appear in court. But, at the time, he was confined to a wheelchair and there were no ramps or elevators leading to the second floor of the courthouse. Lane crawled up the stairs and into courtroom to comply with the order.
The second time he was ordered to appear in court, he refused to crawl. He also refused to be carried up the stairs by court personnel.
After being arrested for failing to appear in court, Lane sued the state of Tennessee for $100,000, charging discrimination under the ADA.
Rather than build a ramp or elevator, the state fought the lawsuit by arguing that Congress was outside its power when it sought to apply the law to the states.
Lane's lawyer countered that all Americans enjoy a constitutional right to have access to the courts and that Tennessee was denying that right on the basis of someone's disability.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.