In 1990, when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, lawmakers hailed the new civil rights statute as a means to help those with physical or other challenges more fully participate in mainstream American life.
It would change the national landscape with wheelchair ramps, specially equipped restrooms, and convenient parking spaces. Most important, the ADA was designed to change people's thinking, by making equal access both a national goal and the law of the land.
But just how broad and sweeping is the ADA? And to what extent do its protections embrace state prison inmates? Those questions are at the center of a case set for oral argument at the US Supreme Court Wednesday.
They are questions that will once again highlight an intense debate among the justices over the proper constitutional balance between national power and state power. And it may offer a preview of what is to become of the revival of states' rights issues now that the high court is under Chief Justice John Roberts.
At issue is a 1999 lawsuit filed against the Georgia state prison system by Tony Goodman, a paraplegic inmate who says he is entitled to $1.2 million for mental suffering and punitive damages for alleged violations of the ADA during the first four years of his 35-year prison term.
In Goodman v. Georgia, the justices must decide whether such suits are barred because of constitutional guarantees of state sovereignty - or whether Congress in the ADA properly overcame that constitutional barrier in order to authorize federal lawsuits seeking money damages from states.
"The legislative history of the ADA ... was concerned primarily with integrating persons with disabilities into the economic and social mainstream of American life," says Assistant Attorney General David Langford, in his brief for Georgia. That is "the polar opposite of the prison inmate, who is by definition removed from society's mainstream."
Georgia officials say it will become increasingly difficult to run a prison if some inmates are empowered to sue for equal access to every program, service, or activity. Such inmates may file suit in state court or seek a federal injunction to change prison conditions, but Congress does not possess the power to authorize Georgia inmates to use a federal law to sue the state for money damages, they say.
Mr. Goodman's lawyer, Yale Law School Prof. Drew Days III, argues in his brief that Congress has the power to extend the reach of the ADA inside state prisons. It is particularly so, Professor Days says, when the state's conduct violates not only the terms of the antidiscrimination law but also principles of the Constitution itself.
The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, the 14th Amendment's due process clause, and other guarantees within the Bill of Rights require states to provide "reasonable accommodations for inmates' disabilities in some circumstances," Days writes.
The Goodman case is important because it arises at a time when the high court's revival of states' rights appears to be at a crossroads. From 1996 to 2003, the court's conservative wing decided a string of cases by 5-4 votes that sharply cut back Congress's ability to pass laws authorizing private citizens to sue state governments for money damages.
But in 2003 and 2004, the court voted to allow such lawsuits in two different circumstances. In 2003, the high court upheld a federal Family and Medical Leave Act suit against Nevada. A year later, the justices affirmed a federal ADA suit against Tennessee. The Tennessee case involved the failure to provide handicapped access to a county courthouse in which a criminal defendant was forced to abandon his wheelchair and crawl up a flight of stairs to a second-floor courtroom for a required court appearance.
Focus on Georgia
Now, legal analysts are closely watching the Georgia prison case for an indication of what might become of the conservative wing's federalism jurisprudence. Under the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the emphasis was frequently on restoring what conservative justices viewed as a balance struck by the nation's Founders between the federal and state governments, with both seen as "dual sovereigns."
Some scholars criticize this approach as conservative judicial activism.
"This will be the first case in which the new chief justice [Mr. Roberts] has had to confront this issue. For that reason it is more than usually significant," says Gene Schaerr, a Washington, D.C., appellate lawyer set to argue a portion of the case in support of Georgia.
Mr. Schaerr filed a friend of the court brief for 12 states and Puerto Rico urging the justices to uphold "the principles of dual sovereignty that are a defining feature of our nation's constitutional blueprint."
Mr. Days counters in his brief that the same principles that led to victory for the disabled man forced to crawl up the steps in the Tennessee courthouse should also apply to a disabled inmate struggling to survive without accommodations in a state prison.
The allegations in Goodman v. Georgia are not pretty.
Mr. Goodman complains that his cell is too small to permit him to turn his wheelchair around. He charges that because prison guards refuse to help him or install physical modifications to his cell, he has been forced sometimes to sit for hours in his own waste or risk bodily injury by literally hurling himself in the direction of the toilet.
He says for more than two years he was unable to take a shower because of lack of proper facilities and that he is unable to get from his wheelchair to his bed without help.
Georgia officials dispute the charges. They say Goodman has filed more than 60 lawsuits while in prison and made contradictory allegations throughout. They even question his need for a wheelchair.
For example, a prison security tape captured Goodman in July walking out of his cell unassisted as guards conducted a routine search of the cell, according to Peggy Chapman, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
"He does actually walk out of the cell," Ms. Chapman says. "He is not holding onto anything. He is handcuffed."
She notes that Goodman has told news reporters that the video is of someone else. Chapman says Georgia officials have no doubt it is Goodman.