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The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on May 17 that states are not immune when disabled people sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act to gain access to courthouses. Writing for the majority in Tennessee v. Lane, No. 02-1667, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “Ordinary considerations of cost and convenience cannot justify a state’s failure to provide individuals with a meaningful right of access to the courts.” The ruling represents the second time in a year that a narrow majority of the Supreme Court has upheld federal civil rights legislation under the 14th Amendment over a state’s claim of immunity. Last May’s Nevada v. Hibbs involved the Family and Medical Leave Act. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has usually been in the majority in upholding states’ rights in past cases, joined Stevens in the majority in Lane last week. Disability rights advocates celebrated their rare victory at the hands of a Court that has narrowed the scope of the ADA in past rulings. “Today’s decision is a huge win at a critical time for millions of Americans with disabilities,” said Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “The Supreme Court today narrowly rejected a radical interpretation of states’ rights that would have robbed millions of a vital means of protecting their civil rights.” Specifically, it is a victory for paraplegics George Lane and Beverly Jones. Lane, facing a charge of driving with a revoked license, had to crawl up the steps of the Polk County courthouse in 1996 for a court appearance. Court reporter Jones also challenged Tennessee for failing to modify access to several courthouses to accommodate her needs. They invoked the ADA’s Title II, which guarantees access for the disabled to “services, programs or activities of a public entity.” Tennessee sought to dismiss their suit on 11th Amendment state immunity grounds. While the case was pending in 2001, the Supreme Court issued Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, ruling that states are immune from suits under Title I of the ADA. Title I bars employment discrimination against the disabled. In the Tennessee case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit found that the ADA should prevail, citing the due process rights involved in access to courts. The Stevens ruling affirmed the 6th Circuit, finding that Congress had enacted Title II in 1990 “against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights.” Some of the evidence involved access to courts, Stevens said, but he also cited evidence regarding institutionalization of the retarded and marriage and voting rights for the disabled. This language gave advocates for the disabled hope that the new ruling could be useful ammunition in a broad range of Title II cases, not just those involving courthouse access. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote the majority ruling in Hibbs last year, dissented, finding that Title II of the ADA was not a valid exercise of power to enforce Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. He said the “barren” record cited by Stevens mainly involved localities, not the state itself, and did not prove that disabled persons were “systematically denied the right to be present at criminal trials.” Also in dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. In a separate dissent, Scalia angrily wrote that the majority casts the Court as “Congress’s taskmaster,” empowered to check lawmakers’ “homework” to make sure it has made a case for “congruent and proportional” remedies to perceived wrongs. Also on May 17, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling in another Tennessee case that raised state sovereign immunity issues. In the closely watched bankruptcy case Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. v. Hood, No. 02-1606, the issue was whether the U.S. Constitution’s bankruptcy clause gave Congress the power to abrogate state sovereign immunity. Tennessee had invoked state immunity when Pamela Hood sought to discharge her student loan debt through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Supreme Court sided with Hood but sidestepped the state immunity issue.

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