Supreme Court Decision

One Step Toward Equality in Access to Public Services Under Title II of the ADA In February 2004, when we […]

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One Step Toward Equality in Access to Public Services Under Title II of the ADA

In February 2004, when we discussed the oral argument of Tennessee vs. Lane, I asked the question: Will the Supreme Court limit jurisdiction under Title II of the ADA? The answer is no, at least not for now. The court found that a plaintiff may file a lawsuit for private damages under Title II of the ADA when the limited access to service involves a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th amendment of the Constitution, such as the ability to gain access to, and use the services of, the courthouse. The Supreme Court made no finding on other issues which could be brought under Title II against states.

While the Court limited its holding to cases involving access to courts, its expansive analysis documented the history of state-sponsored discrimination against people with disabilities in many different areas. This aspect of the decision should prove extremely helpful in defending the constitutionality of other applications of Title II. This decision is definitely a victory for persons with disabilities. Hopefully the door opened by the Court in this decision will be widened in future cases.

In the Tennessee vs. Lane case, George Lane was arraigned for driving while intoxicated. He used a wheelchair and the courthouse had steps and no elevator. When he was brought up for arraignment, he crawled up two flights of steps to the courtroom. He waited all morning and his case was not heard. In the afternoon he refused to crawl back up the stairs and refused to be carried. His lawyer came out occasionally to tell him what was happening and he was ultimately arrested for not appearing in court for his hearing. Lane, and other plaintiffs, refused access either to courts as parties to a case, or as employees due to lack of physical access, brought suit against the state of Tennessee.

Tennessee moved for summary judgment arguing that the state had sovereign immunity against lawsuits brought for money damages. The state court denied the summary judgment motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court argued that while the Supreme Court had found in Garrett vs. University of Alabama Board of Trustees, that states were immune from private lawsuits for money damages by state employees under Title I of the ADA, the same was not true under Title II where a fundamental right was involved. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision.

As in Garrett, the first question asked by the Supreme Court was: Did Congress intend by the legislative language in the ADA to limit the sovereign immunity exception of states to lawsuits for monetary damages? The answer, as in Garrett, is Yes. Again as in Garrett, the question was: Did Congress have the authority under the Constitution to impose such limitations of the states’ right to immunity? In Garrett, under Title I’s employment provisions of the ADA, the answer to that question was no. In Lane, under the Title II provisions of the ADA dealing with state and local government services, the answer, insofar as it involved access to courts, was yes.

The Supreme Court began its analysis by discussing the large body of evidence that Congress amassed, through legislative hearings and the creation of a special task force gathering evidence from each state, while creating a history to justify the enactment of the ADA. The Court noted that Congress’s conclusions based on that record are set forth in hearing transcripts, committee reports, a task force report, and the preamble to the ADA­including the finding that individuals with disabilities have been subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, 42 U.S.C. Section 12101(a)(7).

In addition to enforcing protections under the 14th amendment of the Constitution, the Court said that Title II, also seeks to enforce “a variety of other basic constitutional guarantees, infringements of which are subject to more searching judicial review.” The court cited such examples as the fundamental rights to vote, to travel, and to have children.

With regard to this case pertaining to access to courts, this right is also protected by other constitutional guarantees, such as the Due Process Clause and the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. Both guarantee a criminal defendant the right to be present at all stages of a trial where his absence might frustrate the fairness of the proceedings. In this case, Lane could not be present for his own trial without being carried upstairs or crawling up steps to the courtroom. The Due Process Clause also guarantees certain civil litigants a “meaningful opportunity to be heard” by requiring removal of obstacles to their full participation in judicial proceedings. This means that a person having business before the court, whether it be a criminal or civil case, has a right to removal of barriers that would keep him or her from accessing the courthouse. The Sixth Amendment also guarantees criminal defendants the right to a trial by jury composed of a fair cross section of the community, and the First Amendment gives members of the public a right of access to criminal proceedings. This means that a cross-section of the peers of a plaintiff could well include persons with disabilities, and witnesses or family members concerned with a case might have disabilities and should also have access to the courtroom.

In discussing a history of discrimination, the court identified a broad range of deprivations in different areas. The Court cited state statutes that categorically disqualify “idiots” from voting without regard to individual capacity, state prohibitions on marriage by individuals with mental disabilities, and prohibitions on individuals with various disabilities serving as jurors. .

In addition, the Court cited a series of its own cases reflecting unconstitutional treatment of people with disabilities by state agencies, such as unjustified commitment to state institutions, abuse of such institutionalized persons, and irrational zoning requirements barring group homes for persons with developmental disabilities. the Court noted that the decisions of other courts also “document 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”.

In considering the evidence of unconstitutional treatment of people with disabilities, the Court looked at local government conduct as well as state conduct. Local conduct would be actions of counties, municipalities, and other local governing bodies. In response to the criticism in Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissent that such evidence was not relevant to the inquiry into whether legislation is valid under the Fourteenth Amendment, the majority said that: (1) local government conduct is particularly relevant in the context of courthouse access because, in that area, local governments are typically treated as an arm of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes and enjoy the same immunity as states; and (2) even outside of that context, the Court’s prior cases have recognized that local government conduct is relevant to the “equal protection” inquiry.

The Court held that, for the present, it need decide no further Title II issues than the ones presented here regarding access to the courts. The Court advised that such access must fall within the provisions of Title II and the defenses of undue financial or administrative burdens to the defendants, or fundamental alterrations of programs, would still apply. Therefore, if alternative services could be provided in courthouses built before 1992, such as providing aides to persons, moving the proceeding to another accessible place, or making other nonstructural changes to otherwise inaccessible courthouses, such alternatives were acceptable to the court.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s decision leads the way to persons with disabilities having access to the courts whether as parties, witnesses, jurors or employees. The court’s decision leaves open the way to argue that the right to vote, to travel, to a public education, or to equal treatment in a correctional institution are also fundamental rights. The court remanded six cases seeking review to further brief the arguments it raised in this opinion. Most of these cases deal with persons seeking accommodations in college education or in correctional institutions. We will probably hear more about these cases later as they are argued before the Court.

The Court stopped short of stating that everything covered in Title II would be upheld in future cases. The ones in most serious peril would be cases involving access to state-funded or state-subsidized recreational programs, such as sports stadiums or perhaps state parks. As I usually say at the end of these analyses, we’ll have to stay tuned for further developments.

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