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Supremes Question ADA for Prisoners

Can prisoners use the Americans with Disabilities Act to sue for damages when the state prison won't even give them a toilet or shower that's accessible? Here we go again with "Congress Didn't Have The Right" -- the current disabilities hit from the Supremes. They were singing it again yesterday when the justices heard oral arguments in the case Goodman v. Georgia.

From law.com:

From his wheelchair in a Georgia prison cell, Tony Goodman has told a tale of agony, sued the state of Georgia for $1.2 million and hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would help him.

On Wednesday, the justices largely ignored Goodman's claims that, for example, he sat for hours in his own waste because prison officials did not help him move from his chair to the toilet.

But in hearing Goodman v. Georgia, No. 04-1236, consolidated with United States v. Georgia, No. 04-1203, the Court engaged in a spirited debate over what would happen if Goodman and others were allowed to sue states for money under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Georgia's lawyer warned that disabled inmates would file constitutionally valid discrimination cases over minor inconveniences.

The case is yet another in the series to come before the Supreme Court -- Garrett in 2001, Lane last year -- in which states argue that Congress basically overstepped its bounds in passing the ADA. At issue: can citizens sue states for disability discrimination and be awarded damages?

The plaintiff in this case, much like George Lane, is someone who does not present a sympathetic portrait for the public: In 1995 Tony Goodman was convicted of beating his girlfriend.

More from the law.com article:

Former President George H.W. Bush, the ACLU, the NAACP, the American Bar Association and disability rights organizations filed briefs in support of Goodman. Twelve states filed a brief supporting Georgia. ...

Goodman claims that he was confined in a cell so small that he could not turn his wheelchair. He claims he went 10 months without a shower and years without sleeping in a bed.

Georgia officials have offered evidence that Goodman can walk. The facts of the case have not yet been argued before a judge. ...

The federal government intervened on Goodman's side after Georgia argued to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it applied the ADA to prisons. ...

Many of the justices' questions focused on whether prisoners need the ADA when they have other federal laws that allow them to sue.

The Washington Post's Supreme Court reporter, Charles Lane, wrote that Goodman's "maximum-security cell is so small he is unable to turn his wheelchair or use the toilet."

Lane went on to explain the significance of the case:

The case is one of the most important states' rights case facing the court this year and will further define how the disabilities act is applied throughout the nation. The Bush administration is backing Goodman, arguing for a broad application of the disabilities law, saying that disabled prisoners should be able to sue for poor conditions and that altering prisons for a small number of disabled inmates would not be expensive.

The court has ruled that Congress may subject the states to damage suits as a remedy for discrimination only when there is a substantial record of state bias, and only when the suits are "a congruent and proportional" remedy for it.

Applying these rules, the court ruled 5 to 4 in 2001 [in the Garrett v. Alabama case] that disabled workers alleging job discrimination could not sue state employers for damages under the disabilities act's employment provisions.

But last year, the court ruled 5 to 4 [in the Tennessee v. Lane case] that states could be sued for damages under a different section of the law that protects equal access to courthouses. The majority in the case considered getting into the halls of justice such a fundamental issue that Congress could subject the states to suit for failing to ensure entry for the handicapped.

The justices reserved judgment, however, on most other public facilities, including the state prison systems.

Disability rights law professor and attorney Samuel Bagenstos argued the case for Goodman.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. challenged Bagenstos to explain why Congress has the constitutional authority to allow Goodman to sue Georgia.

Bagenstos said Congress deserves leeway to decide how to protect prisoners' rights.

Roberts sounded unconvinced. "I'm wondering if that's a reasonable reading of the ADA," he said.

The ACLU supported the case because it was a prisoners' rights issue. Read their press release.

More coverage of the case from
Slate.com and The Washington Post and The New York Times.