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Individuals can file suit under US disability law

Supreme Court backs paraplegics in Tenn.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court upheld the right of disabled people to sue state governments that fail to provide ramps, elevators, or other forms of access to their courthouses yesterday -- a clear but limited victory for the disability rights movement that blunts a trend at the court in favor of states' rights.

By a vote of 5-to-4, the court ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), adopted by Congress in 1990 and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, provides a proper basis for a federal lawsuit in which paraplegics George Lane and Beverly Jones are seeking monetary damages from Tennessee for its alleged failure to accommodate them at various courthouses.

Lane said that, on one occasion, he had to crawl up the front stairs of the Polk County courthouse to face a hearing on misdemeanor charges.

Noting a historical ''pattern of disability discrimination" in the administration of justice by the states, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that the ADA, which mandates equal treatment for the disabled in public ''services, programs, and activities," was a valid use of Congress' power to define unconstitutional behavior by the states and to prevent violations by lifting the states' sovereign immunity to suits for damages.

The ruling makes it possible for disabled people to sue for money in a federal court when they feel that a state government has wrongfully refused to make its courts fully accessible.

Disability rights advocates, supported in this case by the Bush administration, had sought a much broader ruling. Stevens wrote that the ruling was limited ''to the class of cases implicating the fundamental right of access to the court," leaving other issues -- such as access to state-run swimming pools -- for another day.

The crucial fifth vote for Stevens's opinion came from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative who is a strong supporter of the court's recent states' rights rulings -- and cool to disability rights claims.

Some saw the limitations in the court's ruling as concessions to keep O'Connor in the majority, whose other members, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, have supported a broad reading of disability laws -- and opposed the court's states' rights decisions.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted after the Civil War to secure the rights of newly freed African-Americans, says that each state will guarantee due process and ''the equal protection of the laws." It empowers Congress to enforce that guarantee through ''appropriate legislation."

The current court is sharply divided over what legislation is ''appropriate."

Conservatives insist that proscriptions against racial discrimination would survive this test, but that the Constitution gives the Supreme Court, not Congress, the final say as to what unconstitutional action is bad enough to trump state immunity. In recent years, for example, the court has ruled that the ADA cannot apply to state employment. O'Connor has generally supported those rulings. But last year, she defected from the states' rights camp for the first time, voting to uphold lawsuits against states under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas dissented from yesterday's decision.

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