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U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments over scope of disability-rights law
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a state's rights case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, estimated to benefit as many as 54 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities.
In Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, Patricia, the state of Alabama and Congress are in a dispute over this primary question at the heart of state's rights doctrine: Does the Constitution give Congress the power to compel states to abide by relevant portions of the ADA?
A secondary question is whether state employees like plaintiffs Patricia Garrett and Milton Ash should have the right to sue their employers in federal court invoking the ADA?
The 11th and 14th Amendments are at issue.
Alabama says Congress violated the 11th Amendment guarantee of state sovereignty. The ADA allows private individuals to sue states in federal court by invoking the ADA. But the amendment gives states immunity against such lawsuits. Therefore, Alabama argues, it should not have to abide by the ADA
But lawyers for Garrett and Ash and the Justice Department argue that the 14th Amendment, which requires state laws to guarantee "equal protection" to all citizens, gives Congress the power to force states to abide by the ADA. The lawyers argued Wednesday states long engaged in a pattern of discrimination against disabled people, making a federal civil rights statute like the ADA necessary.
Jeffrey S. Sutton, an Ohio attorney representing Alabama, rejected the 14th Amendment argument.
Alabama is involved because Garrett and Ash sued their state employers. Garrett sued the University of Alabama Hospital and Ash sued the Alabama Department of Youth Services; both alleged disability discrimination.
Garrett, 61, claimed she was forcibly demoted because she had breast cancer. Ash, 56, said his employers did not "accommodate" his chronic asthma as required by the ADA. Their cases were consolidated into one.
Sutton argued Wednesday that Congress did not prove states were violating their own laws barring disability discrimination -- a key requirement to justify the 14th Amendment claim.
He said at the time of the ADA's passage, all 50 states had statutes prohibiting disability discrimination -- and were enforcing them adequately.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Congress found widespread disability discrimination at the state level before passing the ADA.
"Do you think those findings are false or not relevant in some way?" she asked Sutton.
Sutton said the findings proved the general existence of discrimination in society, not specific discrimination by Alabama and other states.
Justice John Paul Stevens, long a proponent of disability rights, countered, "The fact that state remedies exist, it doesn't mean discrimination is not taking place."
Sutton said the ADA case was identical to an age discrimination dispute the high court resolved last January in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents.
The court ruled Congress violated state sovereignty by allowing private federal lawsuits under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The justices said federal laws have to be "congruent" and "proportional" to the problems they seek to correct.
Sutton, who represented the victor, Florida, in Kimel, said the ADA is neither congruent nor proportional.
The plaintiffs' arguments
Washington attorney William Gottesman, representing Garrett and Ash, said Congress adequately proved states engaged in constitutionally "irrational" forms of discrimination, making necessary a federal law.
Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether Congress had explicitly found that states displayed an "irrational hatred of the disabled."
Gottesman said Congress did, finding "pervasive prejudice." In Garrett's case, he said her state employer demoted her "because of some antipathy ... or some irrational stereotype" that she was unfit for work.
U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman said a 1985 high court decision gave Congress the necessary authority to pass the ADA.
The "magic words" in the City of Cleburne, Texas v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. decision were "rational basis," Waxman said.
Cleburne Living Center sued the city after being denied a special permit to open a home for mentally disabled clients. The high court ruled the permit requirement was unconstitutional, adding the city failed to prove a "rational basis" for rejecting the permit application.
Waxman said Congress passed the ADA with a "rational basis" for violating state sovereignty; lawmakers wanted to extend the same civil rights protections enjoyed by the rest of society to disabled people.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy warned: "When Congress alters the federal balance, it must carefully consider the consequences of doing so."
Reaction to the arguments
After oral arguments, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the ADA's chief Democratic sponsor, said Congress found numerous instances of disability discrimination by states -- despite laws prohibiting precisely that sort of conduct.
"If the court finds no basis for Congress to apply Title II to states, then we're in big trouble," he said.
A group of about a dozen mostly disabled protestors chanted nearby: "Our rights, not states' rights, civil rights not states' rights, human rights not states' rights."
Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor said his state does not seek to overturn the ADA. But his state is keen on preserving its 11th Amendment freedom to be immune from private lawsuits seeking monetary damages, he said.
"The private citizen would still have the right to sue an individual state official who did not follow the Americans with Disabilities Act and obtain an injunction to force that state official to comply with the law," Pryor said. "We don't question that."
Narrow scope of the case
In court papers, Alabama argued that it should be exempt from Titles I and II of the ADA. Title I outlaws employment discrimination by public and private employers. Title II pertains specifically to state and local governments, barring discrimination in public services and structures.
Private employers would still have to comply with every section of the ADA regardless of the outcome of the case argued Wednesday, according to Deborah Mattison and Sandra Reiss, attorneys for Garrett and Ash.
Additionally, the federal government would still have to protect the rights of the disabled under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA applies to state and local governments and the private sector.
High Court to consider whether states' rights supersede federal disabilities act
National Council on Disability
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