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      Top Court Rules in Favor of Disabled Man

      Yahoo! News - Top Court Rules in Favor of Disabled Man
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      Supreme Court - AP
      Top Court Rules in Favor of Disabled Man

      40 minutes ago

      By ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press Writer

      WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court upheld the rights of disabled people under a national law meant to protect them, ruling Monday that a paraplegic who crawled up the steps of a small-town courthouse can sue over the lack of an elevator.

      AP Photo


      The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act properly gives private citizens such as George Lane the right to seek money in court if a state fails to live up to the law's requirements, a 5-to-4 majority ruled.

      In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA, so Monday's outcome was unexpected.

      At issue in Lane's case was the right of private citizens to try to pursue alleged violations of the ADA in federal courts. Advocates for the disabled claimed that the fear of hefty damage awards was a powerful tool to force state governments to follow the law.

      "The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history" that has persisted despite anti-discrimination laws, Justice John Paul Stevens (news - web sites) wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor (news - web sites), David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (news - web sites) and Stephen Breyer (news - web sites).

      The case began when Lane tried to sue the state of Tennessee for up to $100,000 for what he claimed was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA.

      Lane crawled up the Polk County courthouse steps once for an appearance in a reckless driving case, but was arrested in 1996 for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl a second time. Courthouse employees have said he also refused offers of help.

      Tennessee did not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. The state argued, however, that Lane's constitutional rights were not violated and that he had no right to take the state to court.

      The state claimed that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

      Stevens said Congress had ample evidence of discrimination when it wrote the part of the law at issue in Lane's case. Called Title II, it guarantees that the disabled will have access to government services.

      "Congress enacted Title II against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights," Stevens wrote.

      The majority appeared to limit its ruling to the fairly narrow sphere of courthouses and court services, but the rationale could be used to allow private suits on other grounds.

      The case is the latest in a series of conflicts over states' rights and the powers of Congress, but it did not come out like most of the others.

      In a series of cases since the late 1990s, O'Connor has sided with the court's core conservatives to form a five-member majority that has gradually expanded the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.

      Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, chief architect of that states rights push, dissented in Monday's case. Justices Antonin Scalia (news - web sites), Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas (news - web sites) also dissented.

      "Congress utterly failed to identify any evidence that disabled persons were denied constitutionally protected access to judicial proceedings," Rehnquist wrote.

      Scalia said the ruling will open the door to more lawsuits and allows judges to act like legislators.


      "It is past time to draw a line limiting the uncontrolled spread of a well-intentioned textual distortion," Scalia wrote.

      The ADA guarantees against discrimination on the job, and requires that public buildings and public services be open to the disabled. The law is probably best known for prompting installation of wheelchair ramps and other accommodations in many buildings.

      In a similar case three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot be sued by their own employees for failing to comply with the ADA's guarantee against discrimination in the workplace.

      While Congress can override the states' usual sovereign immunity in certain extraordinary circumstances, it did not show that step was necessary in the case of a nurse demoted after breast cancer treatment, the high court said then.

      Tennessee had argued that the same reasoning applied to Lane's case.

      Advocates for the disabled maintain that without the opportunity to collect money, disabled people who may also be poor have little incentive to bear the costs of bringing a court challenge.

      If Monday's ruling had gone the other way, Lane could have gone to court only to ask the state to fix the problem.

      "We're shocked," former Rep. Tony Coehlo, an author of the ADA, said after the ruling. "Shocked and pleased." Coehlo, who is disabled by epilepsy, said Tennessee and several states that backed it now want to take away important rights.

      These "states continue to not understand that those of us with disabilities have these rights granted to us by the court, and they continue to fight," the ADA long after its passage, Coehlo said.

      The case is Tennessee v. Lane, 02-1667.


      On the Net:

      Supreme Court site: http:www.supremecourtus.gov

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