Supreme Court Allows Disabled Georgia Inmate to Proceed With Suit Against State

By LINDA GREENHOUSE Published: January 11, 2006 – WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 – The Supreme Court, in its first federalism decision since John G. Roberts Jr. became chief justice, ruled Tuesday that Congress acted within its constitutional authority when it stripped states of immunity from some suits for damages by disabled prison inmates.  

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, overturned a 2004 ruling by the federal appeals court in Atlanta, which held that Georgia was entitled to sovereign immunity from a lawsuit brought by a paraplegic prison inmate under the Americans With Disabilities Act.Justice Scalia said that at least to the extent that the inmate’s claims indicated that prison officials had violated not only the statute but the Constitution itself, the suit could proceed. The inmate, Tony Goodman, says that prison officials have grossly neglected his needs for mobility and personal hygiene, and that his dependence on a wheelchair has left him excluded from the law library and recreational opportunities.

The decision left very significant questions unanswered, most notably the fate of a disability lawsuit that demonstrates violations of the statute but not of any constitutional provision.

Title II of the disability act, at issue in the case, bans discrimination on the basis of disability in the “services, programs, or activities” offered by state and local governments.

Without doubt, the unanimity and brevity of Justice Scalia’s opinion, at only eight pages, papered over deep divisions that have been apparent on the court during years of contention over the boundaries between federal authority and state prerogatives. Two years ago, for example, the court split 5 to 4 in permitting a lawsuit against Tennessee under Title II of the disabilities act for the state’s failure to make county courthouses accessible to people with disabilities.

The new decision’s ultimate implications for the federalism revolution begun by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, which curbed Congress’s power to make federal law binding on the states, are uncertain. At the least, the ruling, United States v. Georgia, No. 04-1203, makes it clear that the courthouse decision was not a fluke and that the court will continue to examine provisions of the disability act on a case-by-case basis for application to the states.

Some lower courts had interpreted the courthouse decision, Tennessee v. Lane, as a signal that the court would stop there and would not permit Title II lawsuits against states in any other context.

“The federalism revolution is on hold, at least for a few months,” was the assessment offered by Gene C. Schaerr, a lawyer here who argued for state immunity in the Georgia case on behalf of a group of other states.

Mr. Schaerr suggested that the imminent departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been at the center of the federalism debates, might have prompted the court to decide the new case promptly, and therefore narrowly, and to defer the hard questions.

“They may have wanted to wait for the transition to be complete,” he said, alluding to the Senate confirmation hearing now taking place for Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., the nominee to succeed Justice O’Connor. The case was argued Nov. 9.

Despite the uncertainty, this first venture by the Roberts court into one of the most sensitive areas of the court’s docket did suggest an effort to tone down the rhetoric and express a consensus on whatever ground was available.

With uncharacteristic understatement, Justice Scalia observed that “the members of this court have disagreed regarding the scope of Congress’s ‘prophylactic’ enforcement powers under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment.” That bland phrase was a shorthand for a raging debate that this new opinion did not even try to resolve.

The underlying question is what the 14th Amendment’s Section 5 means in granting Congress the “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation” the guarantees of due process and equal protection that the amendment provides.

While stripping the states of the constitutional immunity that they would otherwise enjoy is an agreed-upon aspect of Section 5 “enforcement,” the question remains whether Congress is limited to permitting suits for actual constitutional violations, or whether it may go further and authorize a broader category of lawsuits that seek to deter future violations.

Justice Scalia’s opinion noted that “no one doubts” Congressional authority to address “actual violations” of the 14th Amendment. It left unanswered, in its final sentence, the question of whether, in the case of conduct that violated Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act but not the Constitution itself, “Congress’s purported abrogation of sovereign immunity as to that class of conduct is nevertheless valid.”

The lower courts will now deal with that question as this case returns to them. The inmate, Mr. Goodman, initially filed his own lawsuit, which has never gone to trial; Justice Scalia described it as containing “many allegations, both grave and trivial,” which the lower courts must now evaluate in light of this decision.

After Mr. Goodman’s lawsuit was thrown out by the Federal District Court in Georgia, the federal government intervened in the case to defend the constitutionality of applying the Americans With Disabilities Act to the states.

Samuel R. Bagenstos, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who argued the case for Mr. Goodman, called the decision “an important win.” He said it was significant that the court did not insist, as it had in earlier state immunity decisions, on Congress having compiled a record of state constitutional violations in the area under scrutiny.

Another law professor, Ruth Colker of Ohio State University, an expert in both disability law and federalism, said that in her view, “the plaintiff prevailed only in the narrowest sense.” In an interview, Professor Colker said that if asked five years ago whether it would be considered a victory for the Supreme Court to affirm that Congress may legislate to remedy a constitutional violation, “I would have shrugged and said that’s not much.” However, she added, “we’ve come to expect so little that it’s good news, a genuine victory.”

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