WASHINGTON -- States can sometimes be sued for damages by disabled inmates, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in resolving the first clash over states' rights under Chief Justice John Roberts.
The court said Georgia inmate Tony Goodman could use a federal disabilities law to sue, on grounds that state prison officials did not accommodate his disability. Goodman contends he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow he could not turn his wheelchair.
His case was the latest test of the scope of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for disabled people in many areas of life.
The Supreme Court ruled previously that people in state prisons are protected by the law, and the follow-up case asked whether individual prisoners have recourse in the courts.
Georgia argued that states should be immune from inmate suits brought under the law. Not a single justice agreed yesterday.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said states could be sued under ADA for constitutional rights violations. The court put off deciding whether state corrections departments can face suits for general violations of the law, a more contentious issue.
''This tells states they don't have free rein," said Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University professor of civil rights law.