Post Date: May 21, 2004

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Lane that states can be sued under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Harvard Law School Assistant Professor Samuel Bagenstos drafted the plaintiff’s brief for the case, which involved a paraplegic man who had to abandon his wheelchair and crawl up the stairs of the state courthouse to attend his own arraignment.

“I’m proud to have had the chance to work with the disability community to defend the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Bagenstos. “The Supreme Court’s decision Monday was a fabulous victory, and I’m glad to have played a part in making it happen.”

The central question of the lawsuit was whether Title II of the ADA, the portion of the act that applies to state and local governments, exceeded Congress’ power under the 14th Amendment. The decision, which came on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, surprised many court watchers who had felt that previous Court rulings on the ADA and the Court’s defense of state’s rights, strongly suggested that the Title II would be deemed unconstitutional.

However, the majority determined that a pattern of injustice had been established and that fundamental rights were at stake. Writing for the five-person majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the ADA had been enacted “against a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment,” and that “Congress was justified in concluding that the difficult and intractable problem of disability discrimination warranted added…measures.”

Bagenstos, a 1993 graduate of HLS, first became interested disability legislation when he was working in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. This is the fourth ADA-related case that he has briefed or argued in the Supreme Court.