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Slate's Jurisprudence: Does ADA Apply Behind Bars?


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, why formerly disgraced Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi is back in Washington meeting with top officials.

But first, the Supreme Court this morning heard arguments in a case that could further clarify the rights of disabled people in this country. The case asks whether state prisons need to make accommodations for disabled prisoners. Dahlia Lithwick, legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY, was at the court this morning and she joins us now.

And, Dahlia, remind us about the facts of this case. They're pretty compelling. Tell us about the plaintiff, Tony Goodman.

DAHLIA LITHWICK (Slate): The facts in this case, Madeleine, have not yet been judicially established. This has still not gone to trial. So all we have are his allegations; they haven't been tested yet in court. But Goodman is a paraplegic. He's confined to a wheelchair, he's an inmate in the Georgia prison system. He says he's locked up in a 12-by-3-foot cell between 23 and 24 hours every day. He says he can't access his toilet in his cell because it's not big enough for his wheelchair to turn around. He says he's soiled himself sitting in his wheelchair. He says he has gone long periods of time without showering. Essentially, he says, the Georgia prison system does not accommodate him under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

BRAND: And was that the main argument made today by his lawyers?

LITHWICK: Well, it's a very technical case in some sense. This is a clash between a doctor and a state's rights, the notion that states have sovereign immunity from suit and can't be sued under the ADA, vs. the rights of Congress to sometimes abrogate that immunity where there are sufficiently compelling reasons. So we're looking at past precedents, some case that say, `Yes, Congress can abrogate that immunity,' other cases where they say they can't.

The court has sliced this salami awfully thin, and so what we were essentially doing was trying to determine if this case was more like one case or more like the case we remember, Tennessee v. Lane, involving access of handicap people to courts. The basic arguments being made today by Goodman were, `Look, there's no other statute that can sufficiently protect prisoners like Goodman, and that the rights that are being violated here are so fundamental, including his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, that yet again Congress can get past the bar of sovereign immunity in order to remedy this kind of discrimination.'

BRAND: And what is the state of Georgia arguing? Are they arguing that they have the right to make those accommodations or not, that it's under their purview?

LITHWICK: Well, the state of Georgia, believe it or not, was not arguing that this was very, very burdensome or it was very expensive. Partly they weren't arguing that because the Bush administration has come into this case on the side of Tony Goodman, and the Bush administration was arguing, `Hey, the federal prisons already have to meet these requirements and there's been no real hardship.' So essentially, what the state of Georgia was arguing was, `Look, this just leads to a lot of frivolous lawsuits where disabled prisoners are mad because they don't have access to televisions, and there are other ways, through federal law, to remedy serious constitutional violations. We don't need this act.' There was a lot of talk today, Madeleine, about television violations.

BRAND: Television violations? Interesting.

LITHWICK: Well, there was just a lot of discussion about whether this suit really only came down to a bunch of disgruntled prisoners who, because they're in wheelchairs, couldn't get up to the TV room. That was essentially the way Georgia was often characterizing the case.

BRAND: Well, the court recently ruled in another disabled rights case--Right?--the one where the man in Tennessee had to crawl up the courthouse steps.

LITHWICK: That's right. That was the basic precedent off which both sides were working. Obviously, Goodman's attorney was trying to say this case is even more compelling than Tennessee v. Lane because this isn't just access to courts; this is a guy who has no choice about his accommodations, and his accommodations are appalling. So there's an even greater burden on Congress to remedy discrimination.

On the other side, you have the state of Georgia saying that totally doesn't apply here. Those were genuine concerns about genuine access to courts. There is no more crucial right, they said. Here you've got a guy who's in prison and after all, we grant very broad deference to wardens to do what they have to do to maintain order in prisons. This doesn't even come close, says the state of Georgia, to Tennessee v. Lane.

BRAND: And, Dahlia, just to be clear, the Supreme Court did side with Mr. Lane in that case.

LITHWICK: In that case, the court said that both the guy who had to crawl up the courthouse steps and a court reporter who couldn't get access to courts had their rights violated under the ADA.

BRAND: And could you tell this morning which way the justices were leaning and if they bought the TV argument Georgia was making?

LITHWICK: You know, it's so hard to say, Madeleine, in part because Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in Tennessee v. Lane, and her vote would be crucial were it not for the fact that she's about to be replaced. So there's a real possibility, if the court comes down 4-4 without her, that they would need to rehear this case with Sam Alito on the bench, assuming he gets confirmed.

All that said, though, it didn't look like a 4-4 bench today. It looked like John Roberts and, surprisingly Antonin Scalia, were quite open to the argument being made by Mr. Goodman today.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She covers the courts for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

Thanks a lot, Dahlia.

LITHWICK: My pleasure, Madeleine.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.