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Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tennessee v. Lane, access to courts for disabled Americans is no longer just a legal concept. It is also a physical right, with constitutional dimensions. Because of the efforts of George Lane and Beverly Jones, paraplegics who sued the state of Tennessee for denial of access to courts, disabled Americans should no longer have to crawl or be carried up steps to courtrooms across the United States. But change won’t come overnight. “ Tennessee v. Lane was an extremely significant victory for the plaintiffs and the disabled for two reasons,” says Michael Foreman of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Courthouses will now be definitely opened up to the disabled, and there will be a hotbed of litigation to determine what is a constitutionally protected fundamental right.” In Lane, a divided Supreme Court gave meat to Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that no disabled individual “be excluded from participation” in public programs or services. Specifically, states must now make courthouses accessible to the disabled and cannot use sovereign immunity to protect themselves from damages. Tennessee had sought to dismiss the 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, which bars employment discrimination against the disabled. The Lane Court, however, found that states were not immune under Title II. Kipp Watson, a disabled attorney with a solo practice in New York, says that the Lane ruling will have a direct impact on his own life. “I’ve been an attorney for decades and have been subjected to discrimination because of my disability. Many of the courtrooms that I’ve had to appear at have not been accessible to me.” He notes that there are several other obstacles that have barred the disabled from courtroom participation, including steps to the stand, the jury box, and the judge’s seat. Currently, Watson is preparing to file his own suit against New York state’s Office of Court Administration for noncompliance with Title II of the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to Watson, court administrators have failed to provide transition and self-evaluation plans for court accessibility that those laws require. Additionally, he will seek class representation on behalf of the disabled of New York. “[ Lane] is a significant victory because it allows the disabled to keep the government accountable,” says Watson. “I’ve been considering a suit for several years, but was hesitant to invest time and money into a case that could not be won. After Lane, states are no longer protected by the 11th Amendment.” However, not everyone is as optimistic about the future of disability rights even after Lane. Some say that courthouses may still remain inaccessible to the disabled. “I bet that 75 percent or more of courthouses in Tennessee are still not compliant with the ADA,” says William Brown, the lawyer who argued and won Lane before the Supreme Court. The case was initially filed against Tennessee in 1998. “Nothing is being done. It’s unfortunate that individuals like George and Beverly have to pay to ensure that states comply with a law that has existed for 14 years. It’s about the government standing up and admitting that it was wrong in not complying with the ADA.” Not only is the future of courthouse accessibility in question, but disability rights in general are “still up in the air,” claims Silvia Yee, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief in Lane. “The victory was an important one and should be celebrated,” says Yee. “However, Lane left open the question of what exactly is a constitutionally protected right under the ADA. It’s sad that other individuals will have to take private actions to figure these rights out. In the end, it’s really up to the good will of judges that will hear these cases.” Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of People With Disabilities, agrees with Yee, describing a reluctance in the judiciary to recognize the legal rights of the disabled. “We are glad for the narrow victory,” Imparato says. “But we are still worried. There is a real attitude barrier with the Supreme Court with regards to disability rights.” To begin addressing the courthouse accessibility issue, Imparato suggests that states set up a task force to research the extent of the problem. He cites Arizona as a good example for other states. The State Bar of Arizona, under the leadership of its former president, Sally Simmons, established the State Bar Committee on Persons With Disabilities that began a study of courtroom accessibility in Arizona last summer. So far, committee teams, each consisting of at least one disabled individual, have visited 40 courthouses. They will soon issue a report documenting their findings. Imparato says that it’s an important first step. “It’s about good local leadership,” he says. “As a profession, lawyers, judges, and community leaders must stand up and say that the status quo is unacceptable. Then you will finally see change.” On June 25, the U.S. Access Board, charged by Congress to develop accessibility guidelines under the ADA, published a notice seeking applications for a new committee that will gather and publish information on how states can best comply with courthouse and courtroom accessibility requirements under the ADA.

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