Civil Rights Advocates Decry Supreme Court Decision

For Immediate Release — February 21, 2001


  • Arlene Mayerson, DREDF, (510) 644-2555 or
  • Susan Henderson, DREDF, (510) 644-2555

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc. (DREDF), the country’s leading disability civil rights organization, expressed dismay at today’s Supreme Court decision limiting the enforcement of Title I of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. By the narrowest of margins, 5-4, the Court held in Garrett that state employees are not protected if their employers discriminate against them because of disability. The case involved two state employees with disabilities in Alabama — Patricia Garrett, a registered nurse with breast cancer, and Milton Ash, a security officer with asthma and sleep apnea, both of whom suffered discrimination in their jobs because of their disabilities.

The conservative majority found that states cannot be required “to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions toward such individuals are rational” and that the ADA’s legislative record fails to show that Congress identified a history and pattern of irrational employment discrimination by the States against the disabled.”

In his dissenting opinion in Garrett, Justice Breyer said:

The legislative record bears out Congress’ finding that the adverse treatment of personal with disabilities was often arbitrary or invidious. It is difficult to see how the Court can find the legislative record here inadequate. The record indicates that state governments subjected those with disabilities to seriously adverse, disparate treatment.

Justice Breyer’s dissent cited testimony from Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney of DREDF, a leading proponent of the ADA in Congress. Mayerson, who teaches at Boalt Hall, was co-author of the brief representing Garrett and Ash, and is the author of a comprehensive three volume legislative history of the ADA. Mayerson says that:

The majority decision sets a new low in equal protection law. A state can exclude persons with disabilities based on ‘negative attitudes’ and ‘fear’ and still not violate the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law. The majority decision ignores not only the voluminous legislative history on the historic discrimination by states against people with disabilities, but the hundreds of pages of documentation submitted to the court by a wide range of disability groups, historians and social science experts.

Despite this blow, it is imperative that states and the public know that this decision affects only the ability of people with disabilities to sue state employers in federal court for employment discrimination. The ADA still prescribes standards for non-discrimination applicable to states’ employment practices. Those standards can be enforced by the United States in actions for money damages, as well as by private individuals in actions for injunctive relief.

In addition, state laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in employment and other aspects of life are in full force and effect.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Michael Gottesman, Larry Gold and the Alabama law firm of Gordon, Silberman, Wiggins & Childs also represented plaintiffs Garrett and Ash.