On May 17, the Supreme Court recognized the fundamental right of a Tennessee man to be present at his own trial without being forced to get out of his wheelchair and crawl up steps to get there.
The disability ruling, issued exactly fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, might at first glance appear to be an important victory for Americans with disabilities--and it is. However, upon closer examination, the ruling also demonstrates how tenuous the support for the rights and dignitty of disabled people is on the current Court, and how important any new appointments will be for civil rights advocates across the country.
Tennessee, supported by Alabama and six other states, argued in Tennessee v. Lane that Congress did not have the power under the U.S. Constitution to give a Tennesseean, George Lane, a cause of action for money damages for disability discrimination by his own State government. This neo-States' rights philosophy has attracted the support of a narrow majority on the current court in other cases.
On May 17, four of the nine justices agreed with Tennessee and saw no Constitutional problem with requiring a wheelchair user to crawl or be carried up a flight of stairs to get to his trial.
To the surprise of many Supreme Court watchers, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor switched sides in the fight over States' rights, casting the decisive fifth vote for the proposition that access to justice is so fundamental under the Fourteenth Amendment that Congress was on solid footing when it passed this portion of the ADA.
Chief Justice Rehnquist argued on behalf of the dissenters that the ADA provisions allowing individuals to sue States for damages should be ruled unconstitutional.
In his dissent, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, Rehnquist opined that Constitutional rights for disabled people are "quite limited," and that a state's desire to save money would provide sufficient "rational basis" to justify its failure to ensure equal access to state trials for criminal defendants.
During the oral arguments, Justice Scalia, another dissenter in Monday's ruling, argued that there was no Constititional problem with forcing wheelchair users to be carried into a polling place or a courtroom. Evidently, Justice Scalia and his dissenting colleagues do not realize the inherent danger and indignity involved with being carried in one's wheelchair.
In a 2001 ruling against a state employee with breast cancer, Rehnquist wrote for the court that states need not "make special accommodations for the disabled" and that they "could quite hardheadedly-and hardheartedly-hold to job qualifications that do not make allowance for the disabled."
In the last 10 years, Chief Justice Rehnquist and the four justices who joined him in Garrett have demonstrated a willingness to strike down a host of laws protecting individuals against State discrimination, including not just parts of the ADA but also the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Any vacancy on this court could affect the delicate balance that produced last Monday's victory. If Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy had their way, Congress would be extraordinarily limited in its ability to pass laws protecting individuals from State discrimination on the basis of disability, age, or other factors.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, let us not overlook the fact that the Constitutional underpinnings of some of our nation's most important civil rights laws are hanging by a thread that could easily be cut with one or two retirements from the Court. Given that no one is immune from the process of aging or the potential to acquire a disability, the future of civil rights in these arenas affects all Americans.
The author is President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Association of Peopel with Disabilities (AAPD), the largest cross-disability membership organization in the U.S. To learn more about AAPD, visit www.aapd.com.
Imparato is also the author of "The Rehnquist Court's 'Miserly' Approach to Disability Rights," in The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right (H.Schwartz, ed., Hill and Wang, 2002).