High Court Weighs Rights of Disabled Prisoners
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case testing the power of Congress to pass laws banning discrimination against the disabled in state institutions. At issue in this particular case are state prisons. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG reporting:
The ADA requires all state and local facilities and programs to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled. The key enforcement mechanism, modeled after other civil rights laws, authorizes individuals who allege that they're the victims of illegal discrimination to sue the state for damages. But some states have fought back, asserting that under the Constitution and recent Supreme Court decisions, state sovereignty trumps congressional power.
The court began addressing the issue last year when it ruled that access to state courthouses involves fundamental rights and that a man who had to crawl up the courthouse steps to get to his hearing could sue for damages. The vote was 5-to-4, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor the swing vote.
Today the focus was on state prisons, and it was unclear where O'Connor or some of the other justices stood. Today's case was brought by Tony Goodman, sentenced to serve 15 years in the Georgia state prison system for aggravated assault and other crimes. Goodman is a paraplegic who for years has been confined to a wheelchair. So when he was placed in a 12-by-3-foot cell with a bed and toilet, he said he was unable to turn the chair and, without grab bars, that he was unable to transfer to the bed or toilet. As a result, he said, he was often left for days to sit in his own waste and left for weeks to sleep in his wheelchair. He sued the state for damages under the ADA, asking for reasonable accommodations, such as grab bars. He lost in the lower courts, and today the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.
On the courthouse steps, lawyers for the state of Georgia declined all comment. But the principal author of the ADA, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, was more forthcoming.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): What this is about is whether or not a state can discriminate against someone in a prison simply because they're disabled, simply because they are disabled, no other basis for it. The state shouldn't have that right to do that, whether it's in prison or anywhere else.
TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom the Bush administration sided with the prisoner. Solicitor General Paul Clement told the justices that nothing in the ADA interferes with the latitude prison authorities have to maintain order and security.
Chief Justice Roberts: `Are you suggesting that the ADA doesn't add to the burden of state officials?'
Answer: `The burden is modest in this context since the Constitution already requires that disabled prisoners be treated in a manner that does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed,' said Clement, `federal prisons have complied with the ADA for years.'
Justice Kennedy: `Of course, any violations of the act could be taken care of without damages, relying instead on court orders mandating changes.'
Answer: `That's not a foregone conclusion. The states are claiming that the ADA is invalid in all respects as applied to them.'
Justice Kennedy pursued the question with Sam Bagenstos, the lawyer representing the prisoner. `Why is it clear damages are necessary?'
Answer: `Because experience has proved they act as a deterrent. Other laws that do not allow for damages have not stopped continuing violations.'
Justice O'Connor: `One concern is that in a prison situation, state officials exert authority over every aspect of life. And couldn't that subject the state to lawsuits over virtually everything?'
Answer: `What's reasonable here, making accommodations so that a prisoner can go to the bathroom safely, may be unreasonable if you're talking about access to arts and crafts classes.'
Countering that argument, lawyer Greg Castanias, representing the state of Georgia, told the justices, `There's a world of difference between courthouses and prisons.'
Chief Justice Roberts: `The other side says that the ADA only requires reasonable accommodations for the disabled and that, in the prison context, that's not such a big deal.'
Lawyer Castanias said, `Prisoners sue over everything, even to gain access to the TV lounge.'
Justice Ginsburg wasn't buying that argument. `Aren't the lower courts fully capable of carrying out a Supreme Court mandate that limits ADA claims to accommodating sanitation needs, mobility needs and protection from physical injury?'--claims Ginsburg characterized as `at the heartland of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Scalia seemed to agree, asking repeatedly, `Even if some claims are excluded, how can we exclude damage suits authorized by Congress for violations of the Constitution?'
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.