News Release

NCD #04-454
May 17, 2004
Contact: Mark S. Quigley
202-272-2074 TTY

Supreme Court Upholds Congress' Ability to Protect People from Disability Discrimination by States in Tennessee v. Lane

WASHINGTON--On May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tennessee v. Lane (02-1667), holding that title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) properly gives private citizens the right to seek monetary damages in court if a state fails to make its judicial services accessible.

The Lane case attracted national attention last year when the Supreme Court agreed to review Congress' authority to prohibit disability-based discrimination by states. The State of Tennessee invoked its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution when it was sued by several individuals with disabilities, including a person in a wheelchair who had to crawl up two flights of stairs to participate in court proceedings and who was jailed when he refused to endure such humiliation at a subsequent hearing. In today's pro-ADA decision, the Supreme Court broke its recent trend limiting the power of Congress to regulate states, finding, "Congress enacted Title II against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment of persons with disabilities in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights."

The purpose of Title II of the ADA was to end the type of disability discrimination that occurred in this case. After decades of study, and testimony from individuals with disabilities from all 50 states, Congress determined that persons with disabilities had suffered from a virulent history of official governmental discrimination, isolation, and segregation. Relying on the power granted to it under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to pass legislation to enforce the due process rights and equal protection guarantees of the Constitution, Congress passed Title II of the ADA, which prohibits governmental entities from denying public services, programs and activities to individuals on the basis of their disability. Title II provides that people who have been discriminated against on the basis of disability can seek damages from governmental entities, including states. The State of Tennessee's position was that, regardless of the egregious nature or extent of discrimination against an individual with a disability, Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by allowing individuals with disabilities to seek damages from states for disability-based discrimination because there was no evidence that states had engaged in a widespread pattern of violating the constitutional rights of people with disabilities.

In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that Title II seeks to enforce a variety of basic constitutional guarantees, including access to the courts. According to the Court, "The long history of unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administration of judicial services has persisted despite several state and federal legislative efforts to remedy the problem." The Court went on to say, "Title II does not require States to employ any and all means to make judicial services accessible or to compromise essential eligibility criteria for public programs. It requires only "reasonable modifications" that would not fundamentally alter the nature of the service provided, and only when the individual seeking modification is otherwise eligible for the service." Thus, the Court concluded, "Title II's affirmative obligation to accommodate is a reasonable prophylactic measure, reasonably targeted to a legitimate end."

Today's decision reflects the will of the people. The vast majority of Americans support the ADA, according to a recently conducted NOD/Harris poll. "As our population ages, and more families experience disability first-hand, I think people are coming to understand that the cost of exclusion, isolation, and segregation of people with disabilities is too high," said Lex Frieden chairperson of the National Council on Disability (NCD). "We must do more as a nation to include citizens with disabilities in all aspects of society, and many states have made great strides in this area. With today's ruling, we hope that all states will continue to move forward in improving accessibility for their citizens with disabilities and that we continue to work toward the goals of the ADA-equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities."

For more information, contact Mark Quigley, Julie Carroll, or Jeff Rosen at 202-272-2004 or 202-272-2074 (TTY).