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Article of Interest - Court Cases

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Bridges4Kids LogoNew York Times Editorial: Lane v. Tennessee
Can Disabled People Be Forced to Crawl Up the Courthouse Steps?
by Adam Cohen, January 11, 2004, New York Times; Distributed via email by Justice For all

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Benton, Tennessee: When George Lane showed up at the Polk County Courthouse with a crushed hip and pelvis, he had a problem. His hearing was on the second floor, there was no elevator, and the judge said he had better get upstairs. Mr. Lane, both of whose legs were in casts, somehow managed to get out of his wheelchair and crawl up two flights of stairs. "On a pain scale of 1 to 10, it was way past 10," he says.

While Mr. Lane crawled up, he says, the judge and other courthouse employees "stood at the top of the stairs and laughed at me." His case was not heard in the morning session, he says, and at the lunch break he crawled back down. That afternoon, when he refused to crawl upstairs again, he was arrested for failing to appear, and put in jail.

Anyone looking for evidence that a mean mood has descended on the nation need only stop by the Supreme Court Tuesday for the arguments in Tennessee v. Lane. Mr. Lane and other disabled people are suing Tennessee under the Americans With Disabilities Act for failing to make its courthouses accessible. Tennessee, backed by a group of other states, is belittling the claims, and insisting it has immunity to the suit.

Incredibly, there is a real chance the Supreme Court will side with Tennessee. The court's conservative majority has been on a misguided "federalism" campaign, denying Congress's power to protect the environment, combat gun violence and ban discrimination. It has justified these rulings by saying it has to protect the "dignity" of the states. The discrimination in Mr. Lane's case is so horrific, however, it may help the court to grasp the possible consequences of that stand - including its effect on the dignity of people like Mr. Lane.

George Lane was working two jobs when he got into the car accident that led to his court appearance. Mr. Lane, who had had minor run-ins with the law before, was not popular with the courthouse crowd in his rural Tennessee county. The employees who laughed at him offered to carry him upstairs, he says, but he was afraid they would intentionally drop him. (The judge who presided that day is no longer alive; the court clerk says she was not present.)

A second plaintiff, Beverly Jones, supports her two children by working as a court reporter. Ms. Jones, who uses a wheelchair, has turned down jobs in some of the 23 Tennessee counties without accessible courthouses. Once, in a court without an accessible bathroom, she says, the judge had to pick her up and place her on the toilet. Another time, one of the court employees carrying her upstairs slipped. By chance she fell into someone else, she says, but she nearly fell all the way down.

Ralph Ramsey, a third plaintiff, was a defendant in a civil suit. When he got to court, he sent word to the judge that his disability prevented him from getting to the second- floor courtroom. The case went on without him. An opposing attorney later came down and told Mr. Ramsey, as he passed by, that his client had just won a $1,500 judgment against him.

In their briefs, the states show little sympathy for the disabled plaintiffs. Court reporters like Ms. Jones have no constitutional right, they say, to "ply their trade" in accessible courthouses. Nor, they insist, does Mr. Lane have an absolute right to attend his own criminal trial. As support, they cite a case in which a defendant was removed after repeatedly interrupting his trial and threatening to kill the judge. In any case, the states argue, Tennessee offered to "assist him upstairs," the offer Mr. Lane rejected because he feared he would be purposely dropped.

But their main argument is states' rights - that the federal government has no power to protect the disabled this way. The states insist the 11th Amendment gives them immunity from suits for damages under the A.D.A. They cite the Supreme Court's own declaration that to force the states to defend themselves against these lawsuits would deny them "the dignity that is consistent with their status as sovereign entities."

This interpretation of the 11th Amendment is wildly inconsistent with its plain language, which bars only lawsuits against states brought by "citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state." But conservatives on the Supreme Court, who insist in other contexts that they are "strict constructionists," have held that the amendment also limits suits brought by a state's own citizens. Even John Noonan Jr., a conservative federal appeals court judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has called the link between the 11th Amendment and state immunity "imaginary" - and dangerous.

As off base as the Supreme Court's states' rights rulings have been, they have prompted little popular outrage. The doctrines are too obscure for most people to follow, and "respect the power of Congress" is not much of a rallying cry. But these decisions have deprived Americans of important protections, like the Violence Against Women Act and the Gun-Free School Zones Act. And they have made it easier to discriminate against older workers, blind people and cancer victims.

The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is this year. In Brown, the Southern states argued that whatever anyone thought about segregated schools, the federal government did not have the power to order them to integrate. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, holding that blacks had the right not to be discriminated against by virtue of their national citizenship.

Now, the court should do the same thing for the disabled. Tennessee may be willing to turn them into, as Mr. Lane puts it in his brief, "a second class of citizens who lack the full and equal opportunity to participate in civic life." But the court should make clear that as Americans, if not as Tennesseans, people like George Lane, Beverly Jones and Ralph Ramsey have the right of full entry into the halls of justice - and first-class citizenship.
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