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February 22, 2001

Ruling on Disability Rights Is a Blow, Advocates Say

By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 — Advocates for the disabled said today that the direct effect of the Supreme Court's ruling on disability rights might be limited but that the decision was a serious blow because it suggested the court might not allow disabled people to sue states over blatant discrimination in schools, hospitals and other government institutions.

"This definitely diminishes our civil rights," said Bob Kafka, an organizer in Texas for Adapt, a group that coordinates demonstrations for the rights of people with disabilities. "But what it really raises concern about is what the Supreme Court will do next."

Mr. Kafka said disability rights lobbyists and policy makers had been in conference calls all day discussing what they could do and had reached no conclusion. The prevailing view in Washington was that Congress was left with little room to act.

The court held that state employees could not collect damages from their states for offenses under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that prohibits discrimination against the disabled. That directly affects relatively few people. But cases working their way through lower courts involve the question of whether disabled private citizens may sue states under the law, and one of those cases presumably will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

"We interact with the states all the time, and people with disabilities will be second-class citizens if the trend in the courts continues," said Chai R. Feldbaum, a professor at Georgetown Law School, who helped draft the disabilities law.

"I don't think this means the A.D.A. as a law is in danger with regard to most employers and businesses," she said. "What it does portend poorly for is the rights of disabled people with regard to the states — in education, voting rights, mental health and other areas."

Politically, this is essentially a one-sided issue. People with disabilities have become an important, well- coordinated political force in recent years. On the day last October when the case was argued, dozens of people, many in wheelchairs, demonstrated on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court.

No one, of course, demonstrated on the other side because no one is organized specifically to work against the disabled.

Congress is not in session this week. But two Democratic senators who have been active sponsors of legislation favoring the disabled, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, issued statements today sharply criticizing the Supreme Court's ruling. Mr. Harkin said the decision "undermines every citizen's constitutional right to be protected against irrational and unfair discrimination."

On the other hand, conservatives were quick to support the constitutional principle on which the decision was based. Stephen McCutcheon, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm in Sacramento that backs conservative causes, said: "We are very pleased with the decision. We believe it goes far in helping to restore the Constitution's limits on Congress's power. Congress isn't omnipotent, and states are more than mere subdivisions of the United States."

Audrey J. Anderson, a lawyer here who represented seven states that submitted a brief supporting Alabama in the case filed against it by disabled workers, said the ruling would have little effect on the rights of the disabled but was "important to the states because the court upheld the proper balance between the states and the federal government."

Normally states stick together on questions of states' rights. But as an indication of the political influence of the disabled, 14 states, including New York and Connecticut, filed briefs opposing Alabama and supporting the constitutional right of disabled workers to collect damages from states under the federal law.

Most states have laws protecting the rights of the disabled, but they are generally much weaker than the federal law.

The decision today bars only private suits for damages, which in lawsuits of this kind typically means back pay. People retain the ability to seek injunctions to stop state officials from violating the law. And the federal government may still sue states for damages on behalf of individual plaintiffs. However, the government lacks the resources to bring more than a relative handful of enforcement suits.

Catherine A. Hanssens, a lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who filed a brief on behalf of a coalition of civil rights groups, noted that President Bush's father had signed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 and a brief supporting the law in this case. In an interview, she said the decision today was "a call directly to the current Bush administration" to provide the resources for enforcing the law on behalf of people who could no longer bring their own lawsuits.

Margaret McCann, a lawyer for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, called the ruling "a major victory for the proponents of states' rights and a serious defeat for state workers and their unions."


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

 

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