Disabled Win Right to Sue States Over Court Access
But conservatives, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, have argued that the states enjoy a strong presumption of immunity to federal lawsuits, and that the 14th Amendment empowers Congress to enact only carefully tailored laws against long-standing and well-documented state violations.
Conservatives insist that proscriptions against racial discrimination would survive this test, but that the Constitution gives the Supreme Court, not Congress, the final say as to what unconstitutional action is bad enough to trump state immunity. In recent years, for example, the court has ruled that the ADA cannot apply to state employment.
O'Connor has generally supported those rulings. But last year, she defected from the states' rights camp for the first time, voting to uphold lawsuits against states under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Rehnquist also joined the majority in that 6 to 3 ruling, writing an opinion that said the act was aimed at well-documented gender discrimination in the allocation of employee leave.
But yesterday, Rehnquist dissented, as did Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Rehnquist charged that the majority had failed to show that inaccessible courthouses had resulted in truly widespread violations of disabled people's constitutional rights by the states.
In Title II, Rehnquist wrote, "Congress has authorized private damages suits against a State for merely maintaining a courthouse that is not readily accessible to the disabled, without regard to whether a disabled person's due process rights are ever violated."
He noted that George Lane had been arrested for missing a court date only after he refused help to get up the stairs, and that Lane refused an offer to move the case to an accessible court nearby.
The case is Tennessee v. Lane, No. 02-1667.
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