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Court-access decision's narrow scope worries advocates for disabled.

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision allowing a suit to proceed against Tennessee for not providing dignified access to state courtrooms for disabled citizens may herald a new era for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), say some advocates. Yet they are also troubled that by not explicitly extending the ruling to all public venues, the Court continues a trend: narrowing the scope of the act. (Tennessee v. Lane, 124S. Ct. 1978 (2004).)

The paraplegic plaintiffs in Tennessee v. Lane sued the state for failing to equip county courthouses with accommodations for the disabled. Tennessee, joined by seven other states filing amicus briefs, argued that state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment barred the lawsuit.

Indeed, in Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, the Court prohibited suits seeking money damages from states for violations of Title I of the ADA, which bars employment discrimination against the disabled. (531 U.S. 356 (2001).)

But Lane concerned Title II, which prohibits public entities, including state and local governments, from discriminating against the disabled in providing public services and activities. The Court determined that Title II did not exceed Congress's authority under [section] 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which allows lawmakers to enforce the amendment's guarantees, including those protecting individual rights.

"Obviously, after Garrett, there was a great deal of concern about prospects of the ADA being able to withstand constitutional challenge," said William Brown, a sole practitioner in Cleveland, Tennessee, who represents the plaintiffs in Lane. "There was a broad challenge there with reference to state governments. With this decision, it is very clear that Congress has that power [to enforce the ADA against the states]. The extent of that power is still subject to review, except in the context of judicial proceedings."

In fact, the Court did explicitly address that limitation: "Whatever might be said about Title II's other applications, the question presented in this cause is not whether" Congress can validly subject the states to private suits for money damages for failing to provide reasonable access to hockey rinks, or even to voting booths, but whether Congress had the right under [section] 5 to enforce the constitutional right of access to the courts," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. "Because we find that Title II unquestionably is valid [section] 5 legislation as it applies to the class of cases implicating the accessibility of judicial services, we need go no further."

Silvia Yee, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, based in Berkeley, California, helped file a brief in the case on behalf of several organizations that advocate for the rights of the disabled. She noted that the decision's narrowness has unfortunate consequences for people with disabilities.

"It puts them in the position of uncertainty," Yee said. "Now [potential plaintiffs] really do have to look at this piecemeal: 'Do we have a right to bring an action on this kind of access, on access to transportation or health services? Are they included?' And that wasn't the intent of the ADA. It was meant to open up the whole field of government services. It's unfortunate that the decision didn't uphold all of Title II, although practically speaking, given this Court, that would have been very difficult."

The limitation may soon be challenged: Disabled plaintiffs have filed a class action under Title II against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority--which runs Washington, D.C.'s bus and subway systems--in an effort to improve access to public transportation. (Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., No. 1:04 CV 00498 (D.D.C. filed Mar. 25, 2004).)

Disability rights advocates hope that history is on their side. In Lane, the Court delineated the long history of discrimination against disabled people, noting that Congress considered it when drafting the ADA. Although the four dissenting justices found that this history was not strong enough to abrogate states' rights, the majority opinion was unrelenting on this point:

"Given the sheer volume of evidence demonstrating the nature and extent of unconstitutional discrimination against persons with disabilities in the provision of public services, the dissent's contention that the record is insufficient to justify Congress's exercise of its prophylactic power is puzzling, to say the least."
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Author:Jablow, Valerie
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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