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CA activists to help stop TN Supreme Court appeal

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August 18, 2003 -- A group of disability rights advocates is flying to Nashville to join Tennessee advocates in a demonstration next Monday, Aug. 25, to pressure Gov. Phil Bredesen and the state attorney general to withdraw the Tennessee . v Lane appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case asks the Court to declare Title 2 of the Americans with Disabilities Act unconstitutional. The Court has scheduled the case to be heard in the fall term, starting in October.

The case concerns George Lane and other disabled people who could not access Tennessee's county courthouses due to architectural barriers. Title 2 of the ADA requires state and local goverment services to be accessible. Lane, an amputee, sued the state when he found he could not get to the courtroom to face charges in a revoked driver's license trial. He had to crawl up the steps. (More about the case.)

"Logically, it would appear impossible that the Supreme Court could rule against the right of people with disabilities to be able to enter a state courthouse, which is the basis of the case," says HolLynn D'Lil, one of the Californians traveling to Tennesee. "However, the Supreme Court will not be ruling on the "merits" of the case -- that is, they will not be deciding whether or not it is okay for people in wheelchairs to have to crawl up state courthouse steps. That is not the question before them. That is not the question they have decided to answer.

What the court will be deciding, she says, "is whether or not to apply a previous ruling they have already made. In their 2001 ruling, University of Alabama v Garrett, the Supreme Court ruled that the portion of Title 1 of the ADA which covers states as employers is unconstitutional.

"It is very, very likely," she continues, "that they will also apply that same decision and its rationale to Title 2 of the ADA, which requires that states not discriminate against people with disabilities in the delivery of their programs and services.

In the Garrett decision, says D'Lil, "the Supremes ruled that the portion of Title 1 of the ADA that says individuals can sue state employers for money damages is unconstitutional because Congress failed to justify the passage of the ADA because it failed to show that states have ever discriminated against people with disabilities and therefore, the ADA is unjustified and therefore unconstitutional.

"They said that all the evidence collected by Congress showing that states have discriminated against people with disabilities was only the stories or annecdotes of the people with disabilities themselves and therefore without validity.

"They also ruled that it is okay to discriminate against people with disablities if it will save the states money."

The question, say advocates like D'Lil, is whether the Supreme Court this fall will apply this same rationale and ruling in Tennessee v Lane.

"Of course, they will!" says D'Lil. "There is no reason to make any assumptions that the bias of the Supreme Court against Americans with disabilities has changed since the Garrett decision."

D'Lil is among those national activists who believe the only hope for disability rights is for advocates to get Tennessee to withdraw the case. That's exactly what California activists did with another Title 2 case that had been up before the Supreme Court this last year: they got California to withdraw the Medical Board of California vs. Hason case.

Walter Park from San Francisco, and Sarah Bates and Brandy Sellers from The Independent Living Resources of Northern California Board in Chico, CA, will be traveling to Tennessee with D'Lil to help Tennessee activists do what California activists did: get the state to withdraw its appeal.

"Our board is very concerned about this threat to the civil rights of people with disabilities, and we want to offer what support we can to the Tennessee advocates," said Bates. California ADAPT members and activists from across the nation are also expected in Tennessee later in the week to help the Tennessee effort.

Read "The State of Tennessee's Appeal of the Lane Decision Should Be Withdrawn," by Deborah Cunningham of the Memphis Center for Independent Living.

Read also: The long & sorry history of discrimination against people with disabilities in the United States -- and its likely causes

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