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Disabled win victory in ruling over access to government buildings

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a major victory for disabled Americans, the Supreme Court Monday ruled they deserve equal access and accommodation at government buildings, such as courthouses and schools, in all states.

A divided Court concluded states were not exempt from provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such as those requiring elevators or ramps in public facilities.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the 5-4 majority, said previous government efforts have failed to adequately remedy "a pattern of unequal treatment in the administration of a wide range of public services, programs, and activities, including the penal system, public education, and voting."

The key swing vote for the majority was cast by moderate-conservative Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In sharply worded dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist criticized the other justices for taking an improper "wide-ranging account of societal discrimination against the disabled." Rehnquist said in Lane's case, "a violation of due process occurs only when a person is actually denied the constitutional right to access a judicial proceeding. We have never held that a person has a constitutional right to make his way into a courtroom without any external assistance."

Rehnquist was supported by fellow conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

The Supreme Court building is handicapped-accessible, and a number of disabled spectators were inside and watched the court arguments earlier this year. (January arguments)

The proceedings considered what circumstances the ADA would apply to states.

The ADA, passed in 1990, requires the government, businesses and other private groups to accommodate the disabled. There have been legal disputes ever since over whether states have 11th Amendment immunity to provisions of the ADA.

Tennessee residents filed lawsuit

The case was prompted by a lawsuit brought by Tennessee residents George Lane, Beverly Jones and four other disabled people.

Lane was unable to walk after a 1997 car accident in which he was accused of driving on the wrong side of the road. A woman was killed in the crash, and Lane faced misdemeanor charges of reckless driving.

He appeared at a Pol County courthouse that had no elevator, and was forced to drag himself up two flights of stairs to attend a hearing. He refused to do so for a second hearing and was arrested for failing to appear, even though he had told the judge beforehand of his situation.

Lane claimed security officers laughed at his situation, and he wanted to sue Tennessee for $100,000 in damages.

State officials denied that accusation, and said Lane refused help getting up the stairs. The judge also agreed to move the case to a ground-floor courtroom, but Lane rejected the offer, saying he wanted to be treated like everyone else.

Jones is a certified court reporter who is confined to a wheelchair from paralysis caused by a broken back she suffered in a 1984 car wreck. She experienced extreme difficulty getting into at least two dozen state courthouses, and said she is continually humiliated having to be carried into buildings without wheelchair access.

Lane is currently in a state prison on unrelated assault charges. He now uses an artificial leg to get around. Two years after his incident in the courthouse, Polk County installed an elevator.

And Jones eventually sued the state for $250,000, saying her livelihood was threatened by the lack of wheelchair access. She is paralyzed from the waist down.

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