BY BRIAN LAZENBY AND ANDY SHER
A landmark decision on courthouse accessibility handed down Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court is being hailed as a victory by disability groups, but officials said they do not believe the ruling opens states too a deluge of future lawsuits.
Cleveland, Tenn., Attorney William J. Brown, who filed the lawsuit in 1998 on behalf of a Polk County paraplegic who crawled up a flight of stairs to reach a courtroom because the courthouse had no elevator, said states should not wait for more lawsuits to be filed before taking action.
“I would hope that they would take a proactive approach,” he said. “They need to realize that their judicial proceedings need to be accessible.” The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling Monday marks a limited but significant endorsement of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in many area of life.
“The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history, and (it) has persisted despite several legislative efforts to remedy the problem,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
The ruling means Polk County resident George Lane can return to a lower court in Tennessee, where he sought up to $100,000 in damages from the state of Tennessee for what he said was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA.
Justice Stevens was joined in the majority by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Chief Justice William H Rehnquist, chief architect of the court’s states rights push, dissented in Monday’s case. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Mr. Lane, who pulled himself up a flight of steps at the Polk County Courthouse to make a court appearance and later was arrested when he missed a second appearance, said he felt “blessed” by the decision.
“We’re not asking for sympathy,” he said. “We’re just asking America to make things right.”
Mr. Lane had been released from prison Sunday after serving a 13-month sentence for using is crutch at the Polk County Jail to strike another inmate in the head.
REACTION TO DECISION
Jennifer Mathis, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said the issue of how narrowly the ruling is construed is “kind of the question of the day.”
Ms. Mathis said she does not think the ruling will open “floodgate” on lawsuits against courthouses that don’t make reasonable accommodations for the disabled.
“It does put more teeth into people’s right,” she said.
Mr. Brown had filed the lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in U.S. District Court in Nashville on behalf of Mr. Lane and five others with disabilities. He said it had been on hold while appellate courts decided whether an individual has the right to sue the state.
“The state will now have to participate in addressing these concerns,” he said. “The states now have to play a role with not only fixing the courthouse but providing access for all disabled people. It’s a very important day for the history of our state.”
A news release issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers’ office said the decision does not affect any areas other than courthouses.
“The statute applies to guarantee the right of access to the courts,” the release states. “The decision does not address, one way or the other, whether the states may be sued for damages in the myriad other contexts to which the (ADA) statute applies.”
The right of disabled persons to have access to other state facilities, such as parks, museums and office buildings, is left open for future cases, the release states.
Chattanooga resident Jill Hindman, who has spina bifida and has used a wheelchair for nearly all of her 47 years, said she expects to hear of many people suing states because of the ruling.
“It’s a monumental decision for people like me,” she said. “It’s made disabled people realize we do have power.”
Ms. Hindman said that as a Tennessean she is embarrassed that it was her state that was “so far behind the times that we’re the state that had to push the issue.’
While disability groups hailed the high court’s ruling, most noted that because it was narrowly drawn much of the major impact may be in setting a standard for other cases down the road.
“I think it makes it clear that states’ rights do not trump disability rights and civil rights,” said Jim Ward, president of ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights. “But I think it’s a very narrow decision. I think we need to look at the fact that there have been many weakening decisions by this court on previous cases.”
Alan A. Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, said in a statement that he was “troubled” by the narrow scope of the decision.
The groups’ spokesman, Brewster Thackeray, said, “my take on it would be that this decision really only impacts the issue of access to the courthouses.”
Mr. Thackeray said he does not think the ruling will spur more lawsuits against courthouses. But he warned state and local officials that there have been 14 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed “to figure out solutions.”
He said it is “time for those solutions to be implemented in good, quick order rather than for any excuses or delays in that implementation.”
THE NEXT STEP
Beverly Jones, a court reporter from Lafayette, Tenn., who uses a wheelchair, joined the lawsuit after having several problems accessing courthouses across the state where she was hired to record court proceedings.
She said courthouses should be only the first step for providing public access for disabled persons.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act was not created so there would be lawsuits,” she said. “The Americans with Disabilities Act was created to ensure that all people have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
She said the same Title II public service provisions that applied to courthouses also apply in areas ranging from voting to public health. The court chose not to go into those areas for now, she said.
Ms. Mathis said she expects the court’s decision, which cited the 14th amendment (due process, equal protection) in justifying congressional action, will prompt the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to revisit another disability rights case.
Curt Decker of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems said in a statement that the decision was a “major vindication for the rights of persons with disabilities. It shows that states are not exempt from provisions of the ADA.”
Mr. Brown said he is scheduled to be in court Nov. 2, when he expects the case will begin moving again.
“We’ve been waiting since 1998 to go forward,” he said. “The state will now have to participate in addressing these concerns.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.