The AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT
is now more than 10 years old
. . . but the job isn't finished.
Access comes a day at a time, one issue at a time.
Justices Give States Immunity From Suits by Disabled Workers
By LINDA GREENHOUSE, in the New York Times
ASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2001 The Supreme Court
today carved out a new area of immunity for the states from the reach of federal civil
rights law, ruling that state employees cannot sue for damages for violations of the
Americans With Disabilities Act.
The 5-to-4 vote . . . was important for what it portends, both for
other types of cases under the disabilities act and for other civil rights statutes.
The justices will soon consider whether to take up a state immunity
claim under the section of the Americans With Disabilities Act that requires government
agencies to make their services, programs and activities accessible to people with
disabilities. This section, not limited to state employees, is the provision that has led
to the familiar curb ramps at crosswalks, accessible buses and other accommodations for
people with disabilities. Under the analysis the court applied today, there is every
reason to suppose that the justices will find the states immune from suit under this
section as well as the employment section.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's majority opinion concluded that
. . . the Americans With Disabilities Act was based on an inadequate legislative record.
In order to make states liable to private suits for damages, it was not enough for
Congress to take account of general societal discrimination against people with
disabilities. Instead, he said, Congress needed to demonstrate to a high level of proof
that the states themselves had been engaged in a "pattern of unconstitutional
The second part of the majority's analysis was equally far-reaching and
disputed. Drawing on its recent decisions holding that Congress cannot impose
obligations on the states that go beyond what the Constitution itself commands, Chief
Justice Rehnquist said that because the Americans With Disabilities Act did in fact impose
such obligations, it could not be a valid abrogation of the states' immunity.
This conclusion in turn was based on the status of disability in the
court's hierarchy of unconstitutional discrimination under the 14th Amendment's guarantee
of equal protection. It is a hierarchy in which intentional discrimination on the basis
of race receives the strictest judicial scrutiny and is presumed to be unconstitutional
in the absence of a compelling justification, while discrimination on the basis of such
characteristics as age or disability receives the least scrutiny and is presumed to be
constitutional as long as it is rational.
Chief Justice Rehnquist said it would be "entirely rational and
therefore constitutional for a state employer to conserve scarce financial resources by
hiring employees who are able to use existing facilities" without the accommodations
that the disabilities act requires for those who need them.
To uphold the prospect of state liability for actions that were not
unconstitutional "would allow Congress to rewrite the 14th Amendment," the chief
In his dissent, Justice Breyer said the court "improperly invades a
power that the Constitution assigns to Congress" under the 14th Amendment. Section 5
of that amendment gives Congress the power to enforce, through "appropriate
legislation," the amendment's substantive guarantees of equal protection.
Justice Breyer said the decision today "saps Section 5 of
independent force," in contrast to the court's decisions in voting rights and other
civil rights cases that have treated Section 5 as giving Congress the ability to remedy or
prevent actions that were not necessarily unconstitutional.
Related story: Ruling on Disability Rights
Is a Blow, Advocates Say a Blow, Advocates