The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday about whether states should have to pay damages if they fail to accommodate disabled prison inmates, hearing from a paraplegic Georgia prisoner who alleges his maximum-security cell is so small he is unable to turn his wheelchair or use the toilet.
Lawyers for Georgia and other states disputed the conditions of inmate Tony Goodman's cell but argued that regardless of those conditions, states cannot be forced to pay damages under the Americans With Disabilities Act because Congress does not have the authority to abolish states' immunity from those lawsuits.
The case is one of the most important states' rights case facing the court this year and will further define how the disabilities act is applied throughout the nation. The Bush administration is backing Goodman, arguing for a broad application of the disabilities law, saying that disabled prisoners should be able to sue for poor conditions and that altering prisons for a small number of disabled inmates would not be expensive.
The court has ruled that Congress may subject the states to damage suits as a remedy for discrimination only when there is a substantial record of state bias, and only when the suits are "a congruent and proportional" remedy for it.
Applying these rules, the court ruled 5 to 4 in 2001 that disabled workers alleging job discrimination could not sue state employers for damages under the disabilities act's employment provisions.
But last year, the court ruled 5 to 4 that states could be sued for damages under a different section of the law that protects equal access to courthouses. The majority in the case considered getting into the halls of justice such a fundamental issue that Congress could subject the states to suit for failing to ensure entry for the handicapped.
The justices reserved judgment, however, on most other public facilities, including the state prison systems.
Though the court appears willing to proceed with extending the disabilities act's coverage of state services one area at a time, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, worried aloud about letting "trial lawyers levy against the state treasury" in prison cases.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring, has been a swing vote on many states' rights cases. O'Connor's vote will not count in Goodman's case if she has left the court before the decision in Goodman's case is announced.
She noted yesterday that prisons, where the state controls all aspects of a disabled person's life, are "very different" from courthouses.
The "flip side" of that difference, said Samuel R. Bagenstos, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis who was representing Goodman, is that the state has "an affirmative duty" to treat prisoners properly.
"The deterrent effect of damages is very important" to ensure that, he said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed receptive to the arguments on Goodman's side, noting that the rights violations Goodman alleges, having to do with sanitation and mobility, are in the "heartland" of the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment.
The two consolidated cases argued yesterday are U.S. v. Georgia, No. 04-1203 and Goodman v. Georgia, No. 04-1236. A decision is expected by July.