Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Supreme Court Allows Disabled Inmate's Lawsuit in States' Rights Case
Supreme Court Allows Disabled Inmate's Lawsuit in States' Rights Case

By Gina Holland
Associated Press

States can sometimes be sued for damages by disabled inmates, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in resolving the first clash over states' rights under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said Georgia inmate Tony Goodman may use a federal disabilities law to sue over this allegation that prison officials did not accommodate his disability. Goodman contends that he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow that he could not turn his wheelchair.

His case has become the latest test of the scope of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in many areas of life.

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

Georgia argued that states should be immune from inmate lawsuits brought under the law.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that states can be sued under the disabilities act over constitutional rights violations. The court put off deciding whether state corrections departments can face suits over general violations of the law, a more significant and contentious issue.

"This tells states they don't have free rein. They don't have carte blanche," said Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University professor of civil rights law.

"If we are looking for some signal of what a Roberts court might be, this is a very solid, careful approach," she said.

A dozen states had urged the court to bar general suits by inmates under the disabilities law. Their attorney, Gene Schaerr of Washington, said that justices probably "recognized Sandra Day O'Connor has announced her resignation and they'd rather wait until they have a full court in place until they address that issue head on." Schaerr added: "I think that's very good news for the states."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting this week on President Bush's nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to replace O'Connor. She will leave the court as soon as her successor is confirmed.

O'Connor was the deciding vote the last time the justices ruled on the 1990 law. She sided with the four more liberal court members in a 2004 decision that held that states could be sued for damages for not providing the disabled access to courts.

Goodman is supported in the latest case by the Bush administration, which has argued that there was a history of mistreatment of disabled prisoners when Congress passed the legislation.

The court could have used the case to shield states from federal government interference, something that had been a hallmark of the court under then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Rehnquist died in September and was replaced by Roberts.

The cases are United States v. Georgia , 04-1203, and Goodman v. Georgia , 04-1236.