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Supreme Court rules 5-4 to limit ADA in Garrett decision

February 21, 2001

Related story from Inclusion Daily

The U. S. Supreme Court today ruled 5-4 that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act does, in fact, "exceed Congressional authority" -- at least when it comes to telling states what to do in employment matters.

Or, as Chief Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion, "suits in federal court by state employees to recover money damages by reason of the State's failure to comply with Title I of the ADA are barred by the Eleventh Amendment."

Although Congress did note in its findings a long history of discrimination against people with disabilities, Rehnquist's majority opinion dismissed this record, simply saying that "the ADA's legislative record fails to show that Congress identified a history and pattern of irrational employment discrimination by the States against the disabled." Even though the legislative record did include instances of discrimination, wrote Rehnquist, "the great majority of these incidents do not deal with state activities in employment."

Today's ruling deals only with Title I, not Title II of the ADA, which is the other Title relating to states, and which governs services provided by states. Today's ruling concerns only employment lawsuits against states. And the ruling will not affect suits against cities under the ADA either, says the Court.

"Today's decision is the latest in a series of rulings where a narrow majority of the Court is whittling away at the civil rights of all Americans in the name of States' rights," said Andrew J. Imparato, head of The American Association of People with Disabilities. "The U.S. Supreme Court is systematically turning the clock back on civil rights."

In a kind of "states don't mean to discriminate" statement, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Kennedy, who voted with Rehnquist, wrote in a separate opinion that "the failure of a State to revise policies now seen as incorrect under a new understanding of proper policy does not always constitute the purposeful and intentional action required to make out a violation of the Equal Protection Clause."

In an angry dissent joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the majority had looked at the Congressional record "as if it were an administrative agency record."

"Congress compiled a vast legislative record documenting "'massive, societywide discrimination,'" he wrote.

"The ADA was passed in part because of the history of egregious discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities by the States," said Imparato.

Although it ciearly was a defeat for disability rights, it did not touch but one provision of the law, noted disability rights attorney Harriet Johnson. " State employees facing disability discrimination in employment will be limited to state law and state court if they seek monetary damages," she said. "However, the decision very clearly leaves intact many key ADA principles, including those enunciated in the Olmstead decision of 1999."

Story from Associated Press

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