Supreme Court to review Americans with Disabilities Act Law
March 2, 2000

Supreme Court Building

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court has avoided deciding a critical disability rights case this term. Earlier this year, the Court ruled that states are immune from being sued by their employees for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. That is the federal law against age discrimination. This was the first time that the Supreme Court majority had extended its conservative states-rights doctrine to cover federal anti-discrimination laws, and the decision has opened the door to the possibility that the Supreme Court could end up ruling that States have immunity from other federal laws barring discrimination. Very shortly after the age discrimination ruling, the Supreme Court said it would review two cases testing whether the states are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law barring discrimination against the disabled. The cases that the Court will hear come from Florida and Arkansas, both of which claim that under the Constitution, they cannot be forced to comply with these federal discrimination laws. Last week the Florida case was settled out of court. Yesterday, the Arkansas case was settled out of court. The reason for these settlements came from disability rights groups, who are eager to avoid rulings that could effectively undo the Americans with Disabilities Act, and from state politicians, who are keen to avoid the political embarrassment of having to publicly defend their state's position that it should be allowed to discriminate against the disabled. Also last week, a similar case out of Maryland which was working its way up to the Supreme Court settled.

In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush, who is the brother of Republican Presidential Candidate George W. Bush, started the settlement talks. Florida agreed to pay a "substantial sum" to settle the case. At this moment, the legal wrangling between the states and the disabled has been put on a back burner, but the issue will not remain there for very long.

Two cases, one from Alabama and the other from Nebraska, are currently pending before the Supreme Court, and in both, the question of state immunity from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal disability discrimination law, is up to be decided. It is expected that the Supreme Court will probably hear those cases next term.

The Alabama case is the most likely to be the first test case. That case, brought by the head of nursing at the University of Alabama, claims that she lost her job when she had to take a leave of absence for breast cancer treatment.

The Nebraska case was brought by a police department employee with asthma who claims that the state, by refusing to enforce its own anti-smoking rules on the job, had refused to make a reasonable accomodation to his disability, something he claims is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Both cases present questions as to whether these state employees, like local and federal employees and employees in the private sector, have the right to sue for back pay and damages when they claim to be the victims of discrimination based on disability.

Disability Activists fear that the conservative Supreme Court, given the opportunity to strike down the Americans with Disabilities Act, will do so over the narrow issue of appropriate damages to be awarded in suits brought by state employees. Those same activists are encouraging people to continue applying political pressure in Alabama and Nebraska, encouraging those states to settle these cases, at least until the issue can be reviewed by a Supreme Court less motivated by conservative judicial activism.

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We must not allow anybody to make us feel that we are born to live in poverty and deprivation, we must make it clear: we are going to live in dignity and honor.
-- Martin Luther King
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