- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005


The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will decide whether states and counties can be sued for not accommodating disabled prisoners, setting up another legal showdown over the power of Congress to tell states what to do.

The high court ruled seven years ago that a landmark federal civil rights law protects inmates in state prisons.

Since then, however, lower court judges have disagreed over whether states can be sued for damages by prisoners under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in many areas of life.

Supporters of the law contend that the threat of damages is needed to force states to comply.

The Bush administration filed an appeal on behalf of a paraplegic Georgia prisoner — in a case with major implications for states because of the costs of retrofitting old prisons to accommodate people with disabilities.

Justices will consider the case of Tony Goodman, an inmate who says he has been held for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow that he cannot turn his wheelchair.

Goodman, who sustained his injuries in a car accident, is serving time for aggravated assault and a cocaine conviction. He says that because the prison in Reidsville, Ga., is not equipped for people in wheelchairs, he cannot go to the bathroom or bathe without help and does not have access to counseling, classes and religious services. He has been forced to sit in his own waste, according to Goodman’s lawsuit.

Paul Clement, the president’s lead Supreme Court lawyer, told justices in a filing that ADA’s protections address ?the inhumane, degrading, and health-endangering conditions of daily living for inmates.?

About 1.3 million people are in state prisons and more than 700,000 are in local jails, but it’s not clear how many are disabled.

Lawyers for the state of Georgia had urged the court to refuse to hear the case so that other courts will have more time to sort out a recent Supreme Court ruling in another case involving the disabilities law.

States have repeatedly clashed with the federal government over their liability under the 1990 law, seeking immunity from lawsuits because the Constitution says a state government cannot be sued in federal court without its consent.

Justices have sharply disagreed on when states are immune.

Last May, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states can be sued over inaccessible courthouses. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has championed states’ rights, disagreed with the courthouse decision last year.

Yesterday, the court also:

• Refused to hear an appeal from five persons arrested for burning an effigy of a Cleveland Indians logo that critics view as racist.

• Agreed to use the appeal of a New Orleans waitress to clarify how courts determine whether employers are large enough to face penalties under federal civil rights laws.

• Declined to consider permitting a class-action lawsuit by relatives of American skiers killed in an alpine cable car fire in Austria in 2000.

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