Narrow Supreme Court Ruling Highlights Fragility of Civil Rights Enforcement

Disabled Person Allowed to Sue State for Lack of Courthouse Access

A narrow 5-4 Supreme Court upholding a person’s right to sue a state for damages for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act highlights the fragility of federal civil rights enforcement and the importance of future Supreme Court nominees to the ability of federal courts to enforce civil rights protections. In recent years, similar cases have gone the other way as a 5-4 majority has pursued a new theory of “states’ rights” jurisprudence. The leaders of that “states’ rights” movement on the Court, including Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented from today’s ruling.

In Tennessee v. Lane, the case decided today, a disabled man sued the state of Tennessee after being forced to crawl a flight of steps to a courtroom in which he was required to appear and was arrested for failure to appear in court when he refused to do so a second time.

“This is a tremendous victory that shouldn’t have even been close. The one-vote margin reflects the reality of the current Court. In spite of the horrific details of this case, a bare majority voted to allow Mr. Lane to seek justice in the federal courts,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “Americans’ civil rights protections would be severely weakened by the addition of any new Supreme Court justice who embraces the notion that states’ rights take precedence over the protection of individuals’ civil rights.”

People For the American Way Foundation has published several editions of Courting Disaster, an analysis of the impact that additional justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas would have on Americans’ rights, liberties, and legal protections. The 2004 update of Courting Disaster will be released later this month.

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