By RYAN HARRIS Banner Staff Writer
Published May 18, 2004 10:54 AM EDT
A disabled Bradley County man who crawled up the stairs in the Polk County Courthouse more than eight years ago prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday which will allow physically challenged people fundamental rights in state judicial programs.
The high court ruled 5-to-4 Monday that states must follow the Americans with Disabilities Act and can face lawsuits for money damages if the law is ignored.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer supported the ruling. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“With the Supreme Court’s opinion today, the state of Tennessee as a political entity is now liable under the law if they violate Title II of the American’s With Disabilities Act with reference to courthouses,” Cleveland attorney Bill Brown said during a press conference at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce Monday.
“With the rendering of this decision today, (the state) has no more excuses and they have no more defense.”
Brown has served as the attorney for George Lane and five other plaintiffs since 1998, when he filed a lawsuit in Nashville’s federal district court. Brown argued in the case of Tennessee v. Lane before the Supreme Court on Jan. 13.
The high court made its landmark civil rights ruling for disabled people on Monday – 50 years to the day after it ruled for desegregation in schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
“I can’t help but make note of today being the anniversary of Brown v. Education and how elated I am, as a person with a disability, to celebrate this date from now until the end of time as a landmark case – understanding now that I will enjoy the protection of our rights just as every other citizen in this country,” said Beverly Jones, 40, a plaintiff in the case.
Three of the case’s plaintiffs – Lane, Jones and Ann Marie Zappola – were in Cleveland Monday to comment on the high court’s ruling.
“This is one of those poetic justice moments for me,” said Jones, a traveling court reporter from Lafayette who had to be carried to a courthouse bathroom by a judge because of a physical impairment which confines her to a wheelchair.
Zappola, 44, was also injured in a car crash and suffered spine damage. She received eight screws in her back and now walks with a cane.
After her crash, Zappola said she went to her local courthouse near Nashville to receive a handicap placard for her car. She had to walk up 45 steps to reach the court office.
“Disabled people really do matter in this country – and that has to be said,” Zappola said. “I want people to understand, those who are able are there to help us. Anyone who is disabled shouldn’t have to ask for anything. We should be happy to include them.”
Lane’s story became the center of attention surrounding the Supreme Court case.
It started when Lane crawled up the stairs of the Polk County courthouse to appear in a reckless driving case. He was later arrested in 1996 for failure to appear in the court after refusing to crawl a second time or to be carried up the staircase.
Lane sought up to $100,000 from the state in a lawsuit claiming the Americans with Disabilities Act had been breached.
The state argued it was protected under the 11th Amendment, which guarantees sovereign immunity.
“The issue that was taken up was whether or not the entity – the political entity or state of Tennessee – could be sued in of itself for money damages,” Brown explained.
After several attempts by the state to dismiss the case, it reached the Supreme Court.
During the course of the case, Lane said his character had been publicly judged due to his past legal troubles. Associated Press reports indicated Lane was released from prison as early as Sunday after serving a 13-month sentence for striking a prisoner with a crutch while being held in a Polk County jail.
Now, Lane is planning a career and a possible visit to South Africa. He now walks with the aid of a prosthetic and two artificial hips.
“My character has been judged a lot in this. This is not about my character alone,” Lane said. “One man of my own caliber has helped 750,000 disabled people in this state alone. Myself, I feel surely blessed.”
Experts expect the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling to be a blessing to disabled people. In the past, the high court has limited the power of the ADA which was passed in 1990 by President George Bush.
“We anticipate that this ruling will have a profound effect on the ability of people with disabilities to force state governments to comply with the requirements of ADA,” said Martha M. Lafferfty, attorney for Tennessee Protection and Advocacy Inc., who worked with Brown on the case.
Opponents of the Supreme Court ruling fear the flood gates could now open to a plethora of lawsuits against states.
Gov. Phil Bredsen said the ruling could cost the state money, but work will move forward to meet compliance guidelines.
Brown said the state should have closed the “flood gates” before they were ever opened.
“We have, I hope, got across the issue of access to justice before the courts,” Brown said. “This gate has been there ready to open since 1998. The question now is what is the state going to do about it.
“If they had done something… we wouldn’t have to worry about flood gates or worry about people with disabilities crawling up the steps of a courthouse to get to their day in court.”
Twenty-five Tennessee counties still have courthouses with limited accessibility for disabled people, Brown said.
Litigation against those counties have stalled in anticipation of Monday’s high court ruling.
Brown said the cases against the 25 counties will proceed on Nov. 2. He is unsure what ramifications the Supreme Court’s ruling will have on the litigation.
Of 16 counties which have attempted remedial repairs for handicap accessibility, none have been inspected by the state to ensure state or federal compliance, according to Brown. The local barrister claims it is another example of the state’s unwillingness to comply with ADA standards.
“That says even though this has been law of land since 1990, even though it has been the law of the state of Tennessee since 1970, the institution of government has… refused to accept their responsibility of ensuring their courthouses are accessible to individuals with disabilities,” Brown said.
As for his future plans with the case, Brown said he wants to “ensure no other citizen of the state of Tennessee has to endure the humiliation, pain and suffering that the plaintiffs in these cases have endured.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
COPYRIGHT ® 2004 Cleveland Daily Banner, a division of Cleveland Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.