WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will decide whether states and counties can be sued for not accommodating disabled prisoners, setting up another legal showdown over the power of Congress to tell states what to do.
The high court ruled seven years ago that a landmark federal civil rights law protects people being held in state prisons.
Since then, however, lower court judges have disagreed over whether states can be sued for damages by prisoners under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in many areas of life.
Supporters of the law contend that the threat of damages is needed to force states to comply. ''There's nothing like damages for getting people's attention," said Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University civil rights law professor who helped draft the law.
The Bush administration filed an appeal on behalf of a paraplegic Georgia prisoner in the case, which has major implications for states because of the costs of retrofitting old prisons to accommodate people with disabilities.
Justices will consider the case of Tony Goodman, who contends that he has been held for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow that he cannot turn his wheelchair.
Goodman, who suffered his injuries in a car accident, is serving time for aggravated assault and a cocaine conviction.
He says that because the prison in Reidsville, Ga., is not equipped for people in wheelchairs, he cannot go to the bathroom or bathe without help, and does not have access to counseling, classes, and religious services. Goodman has sometimes been forced to sit in his own waste, according to his lawsuit.
States have repeatedly clashed with the federal government over their liability under the 1990 law, seeking immunity from lawsuits because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.
Last May, the Supreme Court ruled that states can be sued over inaccessible courthouses.