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Court hears wheelchair access case

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The inability of two Tennessee paraplegics to gain access to a county courthouse has put them at the center of a legal dispute that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices will hear arguments Tuesday over whether states are protected from alleged violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, concerning access and accommodation.

The case is another in a long-running series of legal disputes over the power of Washington to influence state sovereignty, known as federalism.

The Rehnquist court has taken a keen interest in the issue in recent years, and has usually sided with the states.

The case concerns a lawsuit filed by George Lane, Beverly Jones and other disabled citizens.

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 incident, and Lane faced misdemeanor charges of reckless driving.

He appeared at the Polk County Courthouse, which had no elevator. Lane was forced to drag himself up two flights of stairs to attend one hearing, but refused to do so a second time.

He was then arrested for failing to appear, even though he had told the judge beforehand of his situation.

The 40-year-old man claims security officers laughed at his situation, and wants to sue Tennessee for $100,000 in damages.

State officials deny the accusation and say Lane refused help to get 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 court reporter who uses a wheelchair. She claims extreme difficulty getting into at least two dozen state courthouses, and says she is continually humiliated by having to be carried into buildings without wheelchair access.

The ADA was passed in 1990, requiring the government and businesses and other private groups to accommodate the disabled.

The law states "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination."

There have been legal disputes ever since over whether states have 11th Amendment immunity to any violations of the ADA.

The high court wrapped up a dispute last month over the law and alleged discrimination by a private employer. The justices ruled 7-0 against a former missile technician from Arizona who sued under the ADA to get his job back.

Joel Hernandez had resigned after cocaine was found during an employee drug test. He sought drug and alcohol treatment, then tried to get his job back, but company officials rejected his application.

Hernandez argued unsuccessfully that because the ADA considers drug abuse a recognized disability the company was guilty of discrimination.

As for George Lane, he is 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 Beverly Jones eventually sued the state for $250,000, saying her livelihood is threatened by the lack of wheelchair access.

A ruling on the case is expected by June.

The case is Tennessee v. Lane, Jones, et al. (02-1667).

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