George Lane got a notice to appear at his county court. When he arrived, Lane found he could not get his wheelchair up to the second floor courtroom. There was no elevator or ramp, so he had to crawl up two flights of stairs to make his appearance. When he was called back for another hearing, he refused to crawl or be carried by court officials. He was then arrested for failing to appear in court.
Lane argued that Tennessee was denying them public services because of their disabilities (i.e. they couldn't access the courtroom), and therefore violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II says that no one can be denied access to public services due to his or her disability and it allows individuals, like George Lane to sue for money damages. The case continued on for many years.
In 2001, Supreme Court decided another famous disability case: Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (2001), usually just referred to as Garrett. In that case, the Supreme Court stated that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act did not allow people with disabilities to sue states for discrimination on the basis of disability for money damages. The disability community was now worried that when Tennessee v. Lane came before the Supreme Court a similar decision would take place and the Americans with Disabilities Act would be forever weakened.
The Supreme Court Justices were evenly divided four and four. Justice Stevens lead one group saying that the Lane case was different from the Garrett case because the it concerned a court, and therefore could be seen as enforcing a core component of the U.S. Constitution, the backbone of all American law – the Fourteenth Amendment’s access to due process in criminal justice, which would include access to the courts. Justice Stevens also believed that over the years there had been plenty of evidence to show that people with disabilities were being denied that right because of inaccessible courtrooms.
The other side was lead by Chief Justice Rehnquist who said that there really was not a lot of specific evidence of inaccessibility of courthouses. In addition, he argued that the Constitution requires that everyone have a right to access to a courtroom, but that it wasn’t necessarily a Constitutional right to an accessible courtroom. George Lane had not been denied his rights because Tennessee had offered to carry him into the courtroom.
The key vote in the case was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s. She joined with Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer making the final vote 5-4 in favor George Lane. People with disabilities had a right to accessible courtrooms.
We usually think about discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how much more accessible the country has become since the orginal passage of the law in 1990. But looking back, sometimes it is good to remember how very close things came to never happening at all. If George Lane had never filed his lawsuit, if Sandra Day O’Conner had not voted the way she had…things may have been very very different.
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