High Court Limits Disabilities Law

Garrett also filed her claim under Section 504 and the Supreme Court could decide to consider whether she has a right to seek monetary damages under this statute.

Also, today's ruling does not affect the federal government's ability to sue states for discriminatory practices. And depending on the state, an employee may have a right to sue in state courts as well.

"In no way should people with disabilities accept a type of discrimination they have long assumed was no longer legal," said Catherine A. Hanssens of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which submitted a brief on behalf of 19 civil rights groups in support of Garrett and Ash.

Court: Congress Overreached

The logic of the high court's ruling focuses on a key phrase in the debate over states' rights: sovereign immunity.

Although the 11th Amendment protects states from citizens' lawsuits in federal courts, the Constitution does make room for some instances when states' immunity is lifted. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, for example, grants Congress the power to dissolve such immunity for the sake of providing citizens equal protection under the law.

But during oral arguments before the court last October, Alabama's attorney told the justices that all 50 states already have their own anti-discrimination laws and provide enough protection for workers.

“This [ADA] was not needed; it’s not proportional to the very problem they were trying to change,” Jeffrey Sutton said.

Not surprisingly, Garrett's supporters do not agree. State laws vary in their substance and Alabama has the weakest statute by far, they say. "If you had to rely only on state law and you live in Alabama, you would be in an unfortunate situation," Hanssens said. "You would be defenseless against disability discrimination."

Trivializing Discrimination?

Further, Congress passed the ADA because lawmakers believed there was a record among the states of “pervasive prejudice against persons with disabilities,” Garrett's lawyer Michael Gottesman, told the court.

He cited the example of a woman with arthritis who was denied a university teaching job. Scalia voiced skepticism of a trend, saying that was “one instance.”

“There are dozens, hundreds of these, your honor,” Gottesman replied.

During the argument session, Breyer said court papers filed in the case showed numerous examples of disability discrimination.

“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 said.

For Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who worked on behalf of Garrett and Ash, the court's willingness to curtail the ADA despite its popularity with a bipartisan majority of Congress is "frightening."

"When the ADA was enacted it was a great moment," he said. "And it's a sad moment when the Supreme Court goes down this path both in cutting back on civil rights protections against the states but also trivializing the problem of disability discrimination."

States' Rights Trend

For Supreme Court watchers, today's ruling should come as no surprise. In recent years, the court has handed down a series of rulings freeing states from federal lawsuits filed by private citizens.

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