- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that a Georgia inmate should get a fresh chance to prove that the state owes him damages for not accommodating his disability.

The court said that disabled state prisoners whose constitutional rights are violated behind bars can win damages, but justices stopped short of deciding a more significant question: whether states can be opened to broader suits under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that lower courts should reconsider the case of 41-year-old Georgia inmate Tony Goodman, who contends he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow he could not turn his wheelchair.

Goodman had been supported in the case by the Bush administration, which argued that lawsuits should be allowed under the disabilities act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled.

“We’re pleased that in today’s decision, the court limited liability solely to instances where there is an actual constitutional violation,” said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general.

Ruth Colker, a law professor at Ohio State University, said although the decision was limited, it for the first time lets disabled prisoners use the 1990 law to sue for damages. “States should be prepared for more lawsuits by inmates,” she said.

The Supreme Court previously had ruled that people in state prisons are protected by the law, and the follow-up case asked whether individual prisoners have recourse in the courts.

Yesterday’s opinion left room for some lawsuits, but justices delayed deciding how much room.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, said that both sides have a chance to “create a more substantial factual record” before the justices reconsider the issue.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring, was the deciding vote the last time justices ruled on the scope of the 1990 law, siding with the four more liberal court members in a 2004 decision, which held that states could be sued for damages for not providing the disabled access to courts.

Justice Stevens cited that opinion yesterday and said that it should be a “guide” as Goodman’s case winds its way through the court system again.

Georgia prison officials had described Goodman as a chronic lawsuit filer who filed dozens of complaints contesting things like the temperature and lighting in his cell. He is in prison for drug possession and aggravated assault.

He contends that he suffered serious injuries trying to hoist himself from his wheelchair onto the toilet in his cell. His case returns to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting this week on President Bush’s nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to replace Justice O’Connor. She will leave the court as soon as her successor is confirmed, and her vote will not count in any pending cases.

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