Supreme Court Weighs Prisoner's Disability Suit

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The Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in an important test of the Americans with Disabilities Act. At issue is whether a prisoner who uses a wheelchair has the constitutional right to sue the state of Georgia for failing to reasonably accommodate his disability.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The US Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case testing the power of Congress to ban discrimination against the disabled in state institutions. The case is called Goodman vs. the State of Georgia. It considers whether a paraplegic Georgia inmate can sue the state for damages under the Americans With Disabilities Act. This is the first test of federal vs. state power to be heard by the new chief justice, John Roberts, and so this could signal the future direction of the court in cases involving state's rights. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.


For decades, the Supreme Court upheld federal civil rights legislation banning discrimination based on race, gender and ethnicity. But when it came to the Americans With Disabilities Act, the court four years ago limited the reach of the law as applied to the states. The court ruled that Congress exceeded its power in authorizing individual citizens to bring damage suits against state governments for employment discrimination based on disability. That still left the second major portion of the law intact, the section banning discrimination in all public facilities and services. Now the court has begun looking at that section, too, but on a piecemeal basis.

In 2004, the justices ruled that access to state courthouses was a fundamental constitutional right and that a litigant who had to crawl up the courthouse stairs for a hearing could sue the state for damages under federal law for failure to make reasonable accommodations to his disability. Today, the high court hears arguments in a case involving state prisons. The case was brought by Tony Goodman, a paraplegic sentenced in Georgia to serve 15 years for aggravated assault, possession of crack cocaine and illegal possession of a firearm. Sent to the Georgia state prison, he was put in a 12-by-3 foot cell. With a bed and a toilet in the cell, as well as Goodman's wheelchair, says lawyer Seth Galanter...

Mr. SETH GALANTER (Lawyer): There's no room for him to move the wheelchair around, so he's basically immobile when he gets into the cell.

TOTENBERG: And without grab bars, he says, Goodman is unable to transfer himself to the bed or the toilet.

Mr. GALANTER: There had been times when he sat in his own waste for days. There have been weeks at a time when he's had to sleep in his own wheelchair instead of in the bed.

TOTENBERG: Galanter says Goodman has repeatedly injured himself trying to get into the bed, the toilet or the shower, where there are no seats or grab bars for the disabled either. He says Goodman is often left in his cell 23 hours a day and that he's gone for as long as two years without a shower. Galanter says that the Americans With Disabilities Act only requires the prison to make reasonable accommodations: grab bars, special seats in the showers and removing the bed from the cell during the day so that Goodman has room to maneuver his wheelchair in the cell.

Mr. GALANTER: I mean, these are all very simple steps that the state can take, and the state isn't saying, `This is too expensive.' The state isn't saying, `We can't do this.' The state is saying, `We don't have to do this.'

TOTENBERG: Siding with the prisoner in this case is the Bush administration and a wide array of groups and individuals ranging from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the American Association on Mental Retardation to former President George Bush, who signed the ADA into law in 1990. In a statement filed with the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush said the law was intended to be broad and comprehensive. Quote, "It would be a travesty indeed to ban discrimination by private entities and condone it by public entities."

The state of Georgia and its allies, 10 other states, have been uncharacteristically silent on this litigation, refusing all comment, including for this story. In their briefs, though, they contend that Congress did to amass a record showing that the states discriminated against the disabled in the treatment of prisoners and that Congress, therefore, exceeded its authority in imposing federal law on the states. Moreover, Georgia argues that people sentenced to prison necessarily lose many rights and privileges and that state prison officials are entitled to broad discretion in the performance of their duties. Lawyer Seth Galanter responds.

Mr. GALANTER: The flip side of that is because they basically control everything that happens in the prison--what you eat, where you sleep, what kind of medical care you have--they have obligations to make sure that basic minimal needs are met.

TOTENBERG: To fail to provide that bare minimum, Galanter argues, is to subject disabled prisoners to unconstitutional punishment that is far more cruel than the punishment accorded other prisoners. Abiding by the Americans With Disabilities Act, he contends, does not interfere with security judgments or unduly inhibit prison authorities. Indeed, the Bush administration notes that the federal law only requires that state prisons make reasonable accommodations, a standard that the federal prison system has met since 1975.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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