WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices, hearing a case that could significantly diminish the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act, seemed divided Wednesday over letting disabled people sue states under the federal civil rights law.
Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether the failure of states to make "special accommodations" for the disabled justifies subjecting them to financial-damage lawsuits in federal court.
"There might well be a rational basis for refusing to hire a teacher in a wheelchair" if the disability could not be accommodated, Scalia added.
But Justice Stephen Breyer said court papers filed in the states’ rights case from Alabama showed many examples of unequal treatment of the disabled that Congress sought to remedy when it passed the law in 1990.
"Why isn’t it a constitutional violation, where Congress has lots and lots of instances of states that seem to discriminate against handicapped people?" he asked.
At the heart of the dispute is the balance of power between the federal and state governments, and the court has issued a series of 5-4 rulings in favor of the states in recent disputes. In January, for instance, the justices barred state workers from suing their employers in federal court under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The justices’ decision on the ADA, expected by next summer, could sweep broadly enough to affect not just lawsuits by state employees, but all claims that accuse states of bias against the disabled in services such as employment, education and health care. A ruling in favor of the states would thus have the effect of limiting the ADA’s enforcement.
Alabama is seeking to fend off disability-bias claims by a state-employed nurse and security guard. The nurse, Patricia Garrett, says she was demoted after taking a leave to be treated for breast cancer, and security guard Milton Ash says the state refused to enforce its no-smoking policy to accommodate his severe asthma.
A federal appeals court ruled the two could sue the state under the ADA.
Former President Bush, who signed the ADA into law, was among many people and groups offering advice to the justices. In a brief supporting Garrett and Ash, Bush said the ADA let disabled people "pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom."
Outside the court, a small band of disabled people lined up their wheelchairs on the sidewalk to protest what they called an assault on the disability law.
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