Disabled people should not have to ask police to carry them up the stairs of a public courthouse when there is no other way to get there, a lawyer for a disabled man argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The court is considering the scope of protection offered to people like George Lane under the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA. At issue now is the right of private citizens to sue over alleged violations such as the lack of an elevator in the small-town courthouse where Lane was scheduled to appear in 1996.
“An elevator to a person with disabilities is like the stairs to me,” lawyer William J. Brown told the justices. “It’s the way I get there.”
Tennessee does not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all. Tennessee Solicitor General Michael E. Moore argued, however, that Lane’s constitutional rights were not violated and that he has no right to take the state to court.
Outside the court Tuesday, protesters chanted, “Justice for all, we won’t crawl.” Then a disabled woman set aside her wheelchair and clambered up the steps and crawled across the court plaza, joined by a handful of supporters. She was stopped at the steps of the court building by about 10 court officers.
“This is what Tennessee is going to make us do,” Becky Ogle of Knoxville, Tenn., a disability activist, yelled as she began crawling.
Tennessee claims that Congress went too far in writing the ADA, and argues that under the Constitution, a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.
That sets up a conflict over states’ rights and the powers of Congress. In a series of cases since the late 1990s, the Supreme Court’s five-member conservative majority has gradually expanded the sovereign rights of state governments while limiting federal control and congressional power.
Advocates for the disabled maintain that lawsuits like Lane’s are an important way to force state governments to follow the requirements of the ADA.
Without the opportunity to collect money, disabled people who may also be poor and unemployed have little incentive to bear the costs of bringing a court challenge, the brief argued.
The ADA guarantees against discrimination on the job, and requires that public buildings and public services be open to the disabled. The law is probably best known for prompting installation of wheelchair ramps and other accommodations in many buildings.