updated 5/17/2004 1:28:33 PM ET 2004-05-17T17:28:33

The Supreme Court upheld the rights of disabled people under a national law meant to protect them, ruling Monday that a paraplegic who crawled up the steps of a small-town courthouse can sue over the lack of an elevator.

The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act properly gives private citizens such as George Lane the right to seek money in court if a state fails to live up to the law’s requirements, a 5-to-4 majority ruled.

In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA, so Monday’s outcome was unexpected.

At issue in Lane’s case was the right of private citizens to try to pursue alleged violations of the ADA in federal courts. Advocates for the disabled claimed that the fear of hefty damage awards was a powerful tool to force state governments to follow the requirements of the ADA.

'Unequal treatment'
“The unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has a long history” that has persisted despite anti-discrimination laws, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The case began when Lane tried to sue the state of Tennessee for up to $100,000 for what he claimed was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA.

Road map to the Supreme Court

Lane crawled up the Polk County courthouse steps once for an appearance in a reckless driving case, but was arrested in 1996 for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl a second time. Courthouse employees have said he also refused offers of help.

Tennessee did not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. The state argued, however, that Lane’s constitutional rights were not violated and that he had no right to take the state to court.

The state claimed that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

Stevens said Congress had ample evidence of discrimination when it wrote the part of the law at issues in Lane’s case. Called Title II, it guarantees that the disabled will have access to government services.

“It is not difficult to perceive the harm that Title II is designed to address,” Stevens wrote. Congress enacted Title II against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights.”

O'Connor changes tack
The case is the latest in a series of conflicts over states’ rights and the powers of Congress, but it did not come out like most of the others.

In a series of cases since the late 1990s, O’Connor has sided with the court’s core conservatives to form a five-member majority that has gradually expanded the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.

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.

Other court actions
In other decisions Monday, the court:

  • Refused to consider whether a California court improperly gave death row inmate Kevin Cooper a last-minute chance to avoid execution, to allow more DNA testing of evidence.
  • Rejected Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest appeal of his conviction for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.
  • Passed up a chance to settle a multimillion-dollar dispute between an artist and the NFL over a logo for the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Declined to consider whether Florida’s death penalty sentencing system is unconstitutional, rejecting an appeal from a man convicted of killing a convenience clerk for $23 in 1981.
  • Turned back an appeal from one of the first women trained to fly Navy combat jets, former Navy Lt. Carey D. Lohrenz, who contended an advocacy group ruined her career with a smear campaign.
  • Refused to hear an international copyright fight over the alleged misuse of videotaped images of truck driver Reginald Denny being pulled to the pavement and beaten during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
  • Declined to consider two challenges to affirmative action in government highway construction programs, from companies in Minnesota and Nebraska.

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