WASHINGTON - Disabled people can sue if states ignore a landmark civil rights law that protects their rights, a divided Supreme Court ruled Monday in the case of a paraplegic man who crawled up the steps of a small-town courthouse because there was no elevator for his wheelchair.
The 5-4 ruling marks a limited but important endorsement of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in many areas of life.
Access to courts and the services they provide is a basic right, and the ADA properly gives private citizens such as George Lane the power to sue for damages if a state fails to live up to that promise, the majority ruled.
"The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history, and has persisted despite several legislative efforts to remedy the problem," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
He was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The ruling means Lane can return to a lower court in Tennessee, where he sought up to $100,000 in damages for what he said was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA. The ruling is also a victory for Beverly Jones, a court reporter who uses a wheelchair and argued that she cannot reach the upper floors of some rural Tennessee courthouses.
Advocates for the disabled argued that the fear of hefty damage awards is a powerful tool to force state governments to follow the law.
Lane crawled up two flights of steps at a courthouse in Benton, Tenn., to face charges in a 1996 traffic case. He was arrested for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl or be carried for a second court appearance.
A small-time criminal who was driving on the wrong side of the road when he was maimed in a car accident that killed a woman, Lane was an unlikely champion for disability rights. He was released from jail Sunday on unrelated charges that he hit another inmate with his crutch.
His lawyer and advocates for the disabled point out, however, that disabled people may be poor or unemployed partly because of their limitations. It is unrealistic to expect those without resources to foot the bill for a court case without the possibility of winning sizable damage awards, lawyers told the high court in the Lane case.
"I felt like I had done something," the 41-year-old Lane told reporters in Nashville. "I feel truly blessed that God has given me the opportunity to help so many."
The majority confined its reasoning to the relatively narrow sphere of access to courthouses and court services, although the rationale could be expanded to other areas later on.
Lane's case is a turnaround for the court, which has repeatedly cut back the influence of the disabilities law in other cases.
Most notably, the Supreme Court ruled three years ago that states cannot be sued by their own employees for failing to comply with the ADA's guarantee against discrimination in the workplace.
Tennessee had argued that the same reasoning applied to Lane's case. The state said that Congress went too far in the ADA, because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.
Tennessee did not dispute that the Polk County courthouse lacked an elevator or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. Yet the state argued that Lane's constitutional rights were not violated and that there were other ways to ensure he had access to court services.
In rejecting that argument, the court departed from a recent line of cases expanding the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.
O'Connor has previously sided with the court's core conservatives in those cases, forming a majority sometimes called the "federalist five." She did not explain why she switched sides in Lane's case, but the ruling takes a cautious approach that seems designed to appeal to her.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, chief architect of that states rights push, dissented in Monday's case. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
"Congress utterly failed to identify any evidence that disabled persons were denied constitutionally protected access to judicial proceedings," Rehnquist wrote.
The case is Tennessee vs. Lane.On the Web
Read the court's ruling at http://wid.ap.org/documents/scotus/040517lane.pdfTHE COURT ALSO ...
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- ASSOCIATED PRESS