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Court debates disabled access liability

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

George Lane
George Lane

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• Case docket: Tennessee v. Lane  (FindLaw)external link
Supreme Court
Justice and Rights
Civil Rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Disabled Americans deserve the same right as everyone else to access and accommodation at government buildings, such as courthouses and schools, a lawyer for two Tennessee paraplegics told the Supreme Court Tuesday.

The justices heard arguments over the scope of protection offered to people under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Outside the court about a dozen protesters, some disabled, attempted to crawl up the Supreme Court's exterior steps in a show of support of the plaintiffs. Some shouted, "Justice for all; we won't crawl."

The Supreme Court building is handicapped-accessible, and a number of disabled spectators were inside and watched the court arguments.

In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA, a landmark law passed in 1990 meant to guarantee equality for the disabled.

At issue now is the right of private citizens to sue over alleged violations such as the lack of an elevator in the small-town courthouse where George Lane was scheduled to appear in 1996.

The case is also another in a long-running series of legal disputes over the power of the federal government 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.

"People have a right to be a citizen in all its aspects," said attorney William Brown in an emotional appeal to the justices.

Brown said basic liberty is at stake, and that the disabled "have a right to participate in those activities without an onerous burden placed on them because of their disability."

Brown helped filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lane, Beverly Jones and four other disabled people.

Lane was unable to walk after a 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.

'I don't feel like an equal part of society'

Lane appeared at the Polk County, Tennessee, courthouse, which 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, 40, claims security officers laughed at his situation, and wants to sue Tennessee for $100,000 in damages.

State officials deny Lane's accusation, and say 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. She experienced extreme difficulty getting into at least two dozen state courthouses, and feels humiliated having to be carried into buildings without wheelchair access.

Part of the plaintiffs' case rests on the arguments that the state holds a virtual monopoly on the services offered and places of employment for Lane and Jones.

"It is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to conduct our business," Jones said outside the Supreme Court. "I don't feel like an equal part of society."

No widespread violation, Tennessee argues

A key issue is under what circumstances the ADA would apply to states. Tennessee Solicitor General Michael Moore told the justices, there is no evidence states are involved "in a widespread violation" of disabled access rights.

That standard, Moore argued, protects the states from lawsuits.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among several on the bench who raised another issue.

She said that while the disabled can be physically carried up stairs, "to respect the right of equal access, we have to treat them as special," which Ginsburg said many handicapped people do not want. "It's kind of a 'dignity' right," she said.

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to side with the states, stating forcefully that the lack of elevators or ramps at courthouses and other public buildings would be a violation of the Constitution only if the disabled were refused access.

The ADA requires the government, 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."

But since the law's inception there have been legal disputes over whether states have 11th Amendment immunity to provisions of the ADA.

The Supreme Court last month wrapped up a dispute over the law and alleged discrimination by a private employer.

The justices ruled 7-0 against a former missile technician from Arizona who had sued under the ADA to get his job back.

A ruling in the case is expected by June.

The case is Tennessee v. Lane, Jones, et al., No. 02-1667).

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