Tennessee v. Lane

DREDF filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Lane on behalf of the of former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), and ADA Watch, which argued that Congress had the power to enact all of Title II of the ADA, enabling disabled persons to participate in critical facets of American life and helping to achieve full integration.

The Court ruled in favor of Lane on May 17, 2004.

The US Supreme Court’s Opinion released on the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education, recognizes that persons with disabilities have a right to equal access to courts and courtrooms. The case was first brought when Tennessee resident George Lane, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to appear at his own trial without having to crawl up two flights of steps to get to the courtroom where the proceedings were being held. Mr. Lane was arrested when he refused to crawl or be carried for a second court appearance, even though he notified the judge that he was downstairs.

The high court’s ruling recognizes that states have an obligation under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make reasonable modifications to ensure access to judicial services, and that Congress has the constitutional authority to require states to pay money damages for violations of this ADA obligation. Coming after a series of Supreme Court decisions that have significantly narrowed the scope of the ADA, Lane v. Tennessee is a victory for people with disabilities across the country, and a rebuke for Tennessee and those seven states which argued that they have no obligation to ensure access to such a fundamental right.

At the same time, the Supreme Court did not uphold the broader sweep of Title II in its entirety, which applies to all “the services, programs or activities of a public entity.”  The narrow decision does not address the validity of Title II with regard to such vital areas as education, transportation, and health services over which the state has ubiquitous influence and control, thereby forcing people with disabilities to take a piecemeal approach to enforcing their right to equal participation. This flies in the face of Congress’s intention when it enacted the ADA.