Supreme Court Plaintiff Beverly Jones Urges Careful Review of Roberts’ Record
Beverly Jones, a plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court disability case, Tennessee v. Lane (2004), will testify this afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of John Roberts to the position of chief justice of the United States.
Jones, a court reporter who lives in Lafayette, Tennessee, will tell senators, “For me, the passage of the ADA was like opening a door that had been closed to me for so long.” Jones will tell senators, “Approximately seven out of ten courthouses in Tennessee were inaccessible when I filed my suit. In some cases, I could not even get in the door… Courtrooms were located only on upper floors, and reachable only by climbing stairs. I was often forced to ask complete strangers to carry me up the stairs or into rooms, including non accessible restrooms.”
Jones knows the real impact Supreme Court justices have on our everyday lives and will urge the Senate to, “pay close attention to whether John Roberts has proven that he would ensure that the rights that people with disabilities fought so hard to secure are not stripped away.”
Ms. Jones’ complete oral statement follows:
My name is Beverly Jones, and I am from Lafayette, Tennessee. I would like to thank the Committee for inviting me to testify in these confirmation proceedings. If John Roberts is confirmed as Chief Justice, his decisions will impact the lives of Americans for decades to come. I hope that as you deliberate on this nomination you will not underestimate the importance his role and decisions will have on everyone, including people like me. If I may, Mr. Chairman, I would like to share with you the importance that the Constitution, the law and the Supreme Court have had for my life, and for my rights as a person with a disability.
I was a plaintiff in Tennessee v. Lane, a case that went up to the Supreme Court concerning the rights of people with disabilities to have access to the courts. The Supreme Court took the case to decide whether it could enforce the rights that Congress gave people like me under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it found that individuals with disabilities, [and I quote] “have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness …” [end quote] based on inaccurate stereotypes.
On July 26, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the law, he reaffirmed this finding and declared that just as we tore down the Berlin Wall to free the people of Eastern Europe, we would tear down the barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating in society.
For me, the passage of the ADA was like opening a door that had been closed to me for so long. I lost my ability to walk due to a traffic accident in 1984, and have used a wheelchair ever since. At the time I became disabled, I decided that I would not allow what I wanted in life to be denied because of my physical limitations. At the time of my accident, I was a wife and mother, but had little education and limited job skills. A local judge encouraged me to look into becoming a court reporter and from there my ambitions began.
I completed court reporting school the year that the ADA was passed. But, to my surprise, when I began my first assignments, I found that I could not get into many of Tennessee’s courtrooms and courthouses because they were inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. I was forced to turn down jobs, or face humiliating experiences.
Approximately seven out of ten courthouses in Tennessee were inaccessible when I filed my suit. In some cases, I could not even get in the door. In the years following the passage of the ADA, some courthouses became more accessible. But even in 1998, when my lawsuit was filed, a number of the courthouses I worked in remained inaccessible to me. Courtrooms were located only on upper floors, and reachable only by climbing stairs. I was often forced to ask complete strangers to carry me up the stairs or into rooms, including non accessible restrooms.
This experience was humiliating and frightening. But as a single mom supporting myself and two kids, I could not afford to quit my job or strictly limit my work to accessible courthouses. After the passage of the ADA, I worked tirelessly to bring the law to the attention of public officials throughout Tennessee, and to encourage them to follow the law’s requirements to make public buildings, including courthouses, accessible.
I spoke to local, state, and federal officials. Almost all of my inquiries were met with polite ambivalence; a shrug of a shoulder; a pat on the back; a comment about keeping it up. I just could not seem to get any action. I filed a complaint with the Justice Department, however I never heard anything back. The door that I thought had been opened was still closed and my freedom to live my dream was still a dream, and turning into a nightmare. Nobody took either me or the law seriously until I and others brought a lawsuit.
Because the State of Tennessee challenged the constitutionality of the ADA, my case went through the courts for six years without any court reaching the substance of my claims. In 2004, my case reached the United States Supreme Court, which voted by a 5-4 margin to uphold my right to enforce the ADA’s protections.
The Court’s decision revolved around whether Congress had developed enough evidence to show that individuals with disabilities were being unconstitutionally discriminated against by states. That was not required by the Court at the time the law was passed, but now it was a critical issue. In my case, five Justices found that Congress had developed sufficient evidence to show unconstitutional discrimination in cases like mine and allowed my case to go forward.
Many changes have already been made in Tennessee as a result of the ruling, and I am now able to do my job with much greater ease and without humiliation or danger.
My case is over. But what I have been able to accomplish with the help of Congress is not the end of the issue. For me it would be a hollow victory to see Tennessee v. Lane as the end of the road. There are too many others who need the protections of the law and the Constitution.
In fact, Congress’s power to enact the ADA will be considered again on November 9, 2005, when the Supreme Court will hear a case called Goodman v. Georgia.
This case involves a man who is in prison in Georgia and is a paraplegic just like me. He requires a wheelchair to move about.
This man is confined in a 12 foot by 3 foot cell for twenty-three to twenty-four hours a day because of the inaccessibility of the prison facilities. He has to sleep in his wheelchair because his bed is inaccessible and he has suffered broken bones because of his attempts to transfer from his wheelchair.
The prison chapel and prison library are inaccessible and so he cannot participate in those services like all of the other inmates. His toilet is not accessible and he has been required to sit in his own body waste. And he has been denied medical care and physical therapy because those facilities are inaccessible.
On November 9, the Court will consider whether Congress has the power to ensure that this man will be permitted to access the same services as every other prisoner in that facility.
Just as I don’t know Judge Roberts, I don’t know Tony Goodman. I don’t know if he is a good or bad person. But that is not the point.
All I know is that just as I should not have had to endure the humiliation, embarrassment, fear and pain that I did for more than fourteen years, he should not either. And if John Roberts is confirmed to Chief Justice, he must know that there are many others like Tony Goodman who need the protection of the la