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Goodman v. Georgia may be Roberts' first disability rights case on the Supreme Court. Legal Times' Tony Mauro looks at what Roberts might do. READ ARTICLE.



John G. Roberts is a fitting replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor. After all, he gave her the ammunition she needed to whittle back ADA protections in her Toyota v. Williams opinion.

John Roberts: bad news for disability rights

By Mary Johnson

John G. Roberts Jr., George W. Bush's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, is bad news for disability rights. As corporate counsel for Toyota Motor Company in its case against worker Ella Williams, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect workers with disabilities like repetitive stress injury, even though such workers become so impaired that they can no longer do manual labor.

Roberts is the man who influenced Sandra Day O'Connor to restrict the Americans with Disabilities Act in her 2002 ruling in Toyota v. Williams.

"The views Roberts expressed in the Toyota case are not necessarily the way he feels," some have told us. "He was simply being the attorney for Toyota." This is certainly the line the Administration is taking. But it's disingenuous. "Anyone who doubts that Roberts will be a consistent conservative vote on the court should examine the avalanche of endorsements that immediately fell his way from right-of-center groups," wrote Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne. "The Bush administration will be trying to create a nice-guy stampede to Roberts among moderate Democrats and Republicans," writes Dionne, who warns that we should avoid "discovering too late that Roberts is every bit as conservative as his supporters think he is."

Not long after Ella Williams took a job at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, moving her family all the way across the state because she was so happy to have landed a job alongside other assembly line workers whose average annual pay was $62,000, she "got lumps the size of a hen's egg in my wrists, and my hands and fingers got curled up like animal claws." Repetitive-stress injuries -- RSI -- accounted for more than a third of the 1.7 million workplace injuries reported in 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Williams was one of those statistics. "I used pneumatic tools that really vibrated, and I was always having to reach above my head," she explained. She pressed Toyota for accommodation. She got some; but later she was put back on another assembly-line job that hurt her wrists again. After a number of legal skirmishes, Toyota eventually dismissed her. "When you get RSI, they show you the door," she said.

Ella Williams's fight against Toyota went all the way to the Supreme Court. Roberts, a frequent figure before the Supreme Court as an attorney for many corporations taking cases to the nation's highest legal body, argued Toyota's case before the Court in the fall of 2001. "She can brush her teeth, wash, bathe, do laundry and cook breakfast," Roberts said to the Justices. "She can take care of personal chores around the house. [Her wrist injury] is only a problem at work," he said.

At one point during the oral arguments, O'Connor, who had bought Roberts' analysis that Williams, despite her ongoing injuries, was not "truly disabled," had interrupted Williams' attorney to give a brief lecture: the ADA was supposed to focus on the "wheelchair bound," not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs!"

Roberts' argument carried the day with the Court. In January 2002, they ruled unanimously that because Williams could still perform tasks "central to daily living" like brushing her teeth or cooking, she was not truly disabled and could therefore not use the Americans with Disabilities Act to sue Toyota. Although Toyota had refused to give her work that didn't involve exacerbating her injury, Roberts successfully removed the right to sue for discrimination -- for her and the millions of other workers who acquire repetitive stress injuries yearly.

O'Connor, apparently basing her thinking on what Roberts told her, and on her own erroneous analysis of the ADA, wrote in the opinion: "Merely having an impairment does not make one disabled for purposes of the ADA. Claimants also need to demonstrate that the impairment limits a major life activity ... [and] that the limitation ... is 'substantia[l].'"

The Toyota ruling "has made it much more difficult for plaintiffs to prove that they are disabled" in order to file suit under the ADA, says ADAWatch, a Washington, DC-based group opposing the nomination. Roberts's "misrepresentations" in Toyota have had a "devastating impact on people with epilepsy, diabetes, mental illness and workplace injuries," says the group.

The flurry of opinion about Roberts' record will soon become a blizzard. Most will focus on his anti-abortion views. Although Roberts has really not had much dealings with the abortion issue -- the only thing reported so far is that, as deputy solicitor general in 1991, he signed a legal brief to the Supreme Court arguing on behalf of the administration that "We continue to believe that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled" -- it is clear where he stands on the issue of disability rights protections: on the side of corporations wanting to exclude, or fire, workers with disabilities.

He will be worse even than O'Connor on disabled workers' rights. It's likely, moreover, that few commentators will pick up on this -- unless disability activists inform them. We will continue to provide links and updates on this page about Roberts' likely trajectory on disability rights as a Supreme Court justice.

Posted July 20, 2005.

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge, and is author of the book Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve & the Case Against Disability Rights.

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