Jan. 13, 2004 – The US Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in a case concerning the right of disabled people to sue states under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Beverly Jones, a partially paralyzed Tennessee court reporter who often found her workplaces inaccessible for lack of elevators and ramps; and George Lane, a paraplegic, who was jailed after refusing to crawl or be carried up two flights of stairs to reach a courtroom, are primary plaintiffs among several disabled people suing the state of Tennessee for violations of their Constitutional rights by failing to comply with the ADA.
Jones and Lane assert the state of Tennessee failed to provide access in its courthouses. "I was forced to go about the courthouse in many instances and ask complete strangers for their assistance in carrying me up the stairs," Jones said, describing to the Chicago Tribune her daily experience of trying to get to work.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Lane, in 1996, crawled up two flights of courthouse stairs in order to reach a courtroom where he was being charged for driving on a suspended license. When he was summoned again to the same courtroom, he refused to crawl and was arrested for failing to appear in court.
Lawyers representing the state of Tennessee argued that Congress exceeded its powers when it passed the Disabilities Act, a 1990 law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled in a broad range of "public services, programs and activities." Tennessee Solicitor General Michael E. Moore argued that Tennessee has immunity from ADA-related lawsuits in federal court.
Mooreâ€™s arguments highlight the key judicial issue in this case: conflict between statesâ€™ rights as guaranteed in the 11th Amendment and the promise of "equal protections" outlined in the 14th Amendment. While Congress has the right to override statesâ€™ immunity from lawsuits, the Supreme Court has the power to determine whether or not Congress has used that power legitimately.
According to the New York Times, the plaintiffsâ€™ lawyer, William J. Brown, argued that access to a courtroom is a right protected under the Constitution. "We all have a right to get to the civic center of our public life," he said. According to Brown, Congress is well within its power to override immunity when states themselves are committing Constitutional violations, reported the Christian Science Monitor. "When a state maintains courts that are not accessible to people with disabilities, the state's actions threaten an array of Constitutional rights under the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments," Brown said.
But the last few years have seen both a pattern of eroding the ADA and the strengthening of statesâ€™ rights. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that disabled workers could not sue state governments over job discrimination.
Jim Ward, president of ADA Watch, a national coalition of disability rights advocates, said in a press release by the group, "Itâ€™s outrageous that anyone should be denied their dignity because a state like Tennessee fails to comply with the ADA. Itâ€™s even more outrageous that some states would argue the law never should have applied to them in the first place. The ADA is one of the most important civil rights laws in the history of this country, but unless itâ€™s enforced, it might as well be just another piece of paper."
While the case was argued inside the courtroom, disability activists staged a demonstration outside on the steps of the Supreme Court. According to Memphis Online, several crawled across the granite steps in a show of solidarity with Lane, while others unfurled a banner with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.â€™s words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."