By LINDA GREENHOUSE
WASHINGTON, May 17- States that fail to make their courthouses accessible to people with disabilities can be sued for damages under federal disability law, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a significant break from recent decisions that gave the states broad immunity from suit under various federal laws.
The 5-to-4 decision was a narrow one not only in the vote margin but also in the scope of the holding. Rather than validate, or even address, Congress’s decision in the American’ With Disabilities Act to open the states to suit for failing to make accessible a broad array of public services and programs, Justice John Paul Stevens confined his majority opinion to the specific context presented by the case: Access to court.
The case was brought by six disabled Tennessee residents, including a man who refused to crawl or be carried up to a second-floor courtroom in a county courthouse to answer a criminal traffic complaint. He sued after the state charged him with failing to appear for his hearing.
Other contexts covered by Title II of the disability law, which prohibits governments from discriminating on the basis of disability in access to their “services, programs or activities,” must await future rulings. Clearly there is no margin to spare, and claims involving access to places where fundamental rights are not usually exercised – publicly owned hockey rinks were one example the majority mentioned in passing – may not far as well.
Nonetheless, the very fact that this fragile majority – with the crucial fifth vote provided by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – managed to carry out one disputed application of the law and uphold it in the face of Tennessee’s claim of constitutional immunity was a development with potentially broad implications.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist objected strenuously to the majority’s case-by-case approach, arguing that a law like this one should stand or fall as a whole. “Congress can now simply rely on the courts to sort out which hypothetical applications of an undifferentiated statute, such as Title II, may be enforced against the states,” he said. The chief justice left no doubt of his view that Congress lacked constitutional authority to make the law binding on the states.
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia also voted in dissent, with Justice Scalia writing separately to urge the court to take a fresh approach to the immunity issue in order to give clearer guidance to Congress.
In addition to Justices Stevens and O’Connor, those in the majority were David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. In a concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg said that “legislation calling upon all government actors to respect the dignity of individuals with disabilities is entirely compatible with our Constitution’s commitment to federalism, properly conceived.”
Justice Souter also wrote a concurring opinion, to say that judges had been part of the history of official mistreatment of people with disabilities, for years enforcing or upholding laws or policies that were flagrantly discriminating.
That history was at least arguably relevant, because the factual dispute within the court centered on whether Congress had sufficient justification for opening the states to suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
As interpreted in recent decisions, the 11th Amendment to the Constitution or ordinarily bars private lawsuits against states in federal court unless Congress has acted within its own authority to abrogate that immunity. Further, the court has ruled, Congress can validly take that step only in the exercise of its power to enforce the equal-protection and due-process guarantees of the 14th Amendment, and only then as a “congruent and proportional” response to official failure to enforce those guarantees.
So the record of past lapses has become crucial. In a 5-to-4 ruling in 2001, the court held that Congress had lacked a basis for permitting states to be sued under Title I of the disability law, which applies to state employment. There was an insufficient record of state discrimination against disables public employees, Chief Justice Rehnquist said for the majority then, while suggesting that the record for Title II, public services, might be different.
It was different, Justice Stevens insisted on Monday. In its years of consideration before passing the disability law in 1990, “Congress learned that many individuals, in many states across the country, were being excluded from courthouses and court proceedings by reason of their disabilities,” he said. Chief Justice Rehnquist replied that the evidence was anecdotal and insufficient to document a systemic problem.
A year ago, a majority opinion by the chief justice held that Congress had properly stripped the states of immunity from suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives male and female workers the right to 12 weeks’ leave for family emergencies. In that opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist called the law a valid weapon against a documented history of workplace sex discrimination, which he said was based on employers’ stereotyped view that caring for the family was women’s work.
Justice Stevens said Monday that Congress had even stronger evidence of discrimination against people with disabilities.
The unresolved tension between last year’s decision and Monday’s was a reminder of how tenuous either side’s hold is on this rapidly evolving area of law. As for the latest case, Tennessee v. Lane, No. 02-1667, it was clearly more important for Justice Stevens and his usual three allies to win Justice O’Connor’s support than to set out a far-reaching critique of the 2001 disability decision or of others she had joined on the states’-rights side. The majority’s focus on the “basic right” of access to court thus served its purpose without prejudging future cases.
The new decision affirmed a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati. Last year that court rejected Tennessee’s claim of immunity from a suit brought in 1998 by George Lane, the man who could not reach the courtroom, and Beverly Jones, a court stenographer whose reliance on a wheelchair kept her from many Tennessee courtrooms. Four other plaintiffs late joined the lawsuit, which has yet to go to trial.
A second decision Monday was also so a step back from the brink of confrontation over Congressional authority. In Sabri v. United States, No. 03-44, the court voted 9 to 0 to uphold a federal criminal law know as the federal program bribery statute. That 1984 law makes it a crime to bribe a state or local official if the official’s agency receives federal grants or contracts worth more than $10,000.
The law does not require proof of a connection between the bribe an the federal money. Minneapolis real estate developer, charged with violating the law, challenged its constitutionality as exceeding Congress’s jurisdiction. Through the United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the law, the issue had been percolating and causing concern among federal prosecutors, who had feared that it might be struck down.
In an opinion by Justice Souter, the court said that because “money is fungible,” Congress did not need to specify a federal interest. Justice Souter said the Constitution gave Congress authority to spend federal money and to take “necessary and proper” action to assure its correct use. Justice Thomas concurred separately, saying the majority had interpreted the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution too expansively.