Civil Rights Coalition Warns of Larger Civil Rights Ramifications in Disability Rights Case

Media 01.12,04

WASHINGTON – The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, issued the following statement regarding a hearing tomorrow before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Tennessee v. Lane, which will address whether individuals may fully pursue claims against states for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

“LCCR is very concerned about the case of Tennessee v. Lane, and we find it unfortunate that the state of Tennessee is trying to undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the most significant civil rights laws to be enacted in the last quarter of a century,” stated Nancy Zirkin, LCCR deputy director. “It is ironic that Tennessee is turning to the courts in order to keep its own citizens from getting in – not just physically, as is the case here, but then also by trying to keep people from enforcing their civil rights once they actually get in.”

The case of Tennesee v. Lane arose when George Lane of Benton, Tenn., a single above-the-knee amputee, was summoned to appear in court to answer to a misdemeanor charge. Because the courthouse lacked an elevator or any other ADA-required accommodations, Lane was forced to crawl up two flights of stairs. At a subsequent hearing, Lane came to the courthouse but refused to crawl or be carried up the stairs, which resulted in his arrest for failing to appear in court. Lane sued the state under the ADA, but the state contends that it cannot be taken to federal court without its consent.

LCCR points out that Tennessee’s position in the Lane case is part and parcel of a broader, orchestrated attack on federal civil rights laws. “This case is important not just because it threatens to gut the ADA, preventing millions of people with disabilities from enforcing their rights,” Zirkin continued, “but also because it is the latest attack in an aggressive campaign in recent years to weaken federal civil rights protections for all Americans under the notion of states’ rights.”

The Lane case comes on the heels of a series of federal court rulings, many decided by narrow 5-4 margins in the Supreme Court, that have made it harder for individuals to challenge violations of civil rights. The Supreme Court has ruled, for example, that states cannot be sued for employment discrimination against the elderly and people with disabilities. In another case, the court ruled that individuals could not pursue disparate impact claims under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the impact of which affects cases involving national origin or gender discrimination. In yet another case, the court said that workers can be forced to sign binding arbitration agreements, in which they forfeit the right to have legal complaints – such as alleged violations of labor law – resolved in a courtroom.

“We’ll be pushing legislation that will respond to these sorts of attacks on civil rights that have been coming from the courts,” Zirkin continued, “but at the same time, we continue to be concerned about many of the nominees to the federal courts with strong states’ rights positions, because some of them are clearly leading these attacks.” LCCR called on the Bush administration to be careful to appoint “judges who will work to defend our federal civil rights laws rather than slowly pick them apart.”

Pointing to the fact that Congress was often forced to take the lead in protecting civil rights in the last fifty years because many states were unwilling to act on their own, Zirkin concluded that “we can only hope that when the Supreme Court hears this case tomorrow, they will not further the damage that has been done in recent years to nearly 50 years of extraordinary progress in civil rights.”