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Tomorrow’s Argument in Goodman v. Georgia and U.S. v. Georgia

Tomorrow the Court will hear arguments in the consolidated cases of Goodman v. Georgia, No. 04-1236, and United States v. Georgia, No. 04-1203. These cases ask the Court to decide whether state prisoners who suffer disability-based discrimination can bring lawsuits in federal court against states for violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The question comes a little more than a year after the Court held in Tennessee v. Lane that Title II abrogated state sovereign immunity from suits claiming disability-based discrimination in access to state courthouses and judicial services. This case will determine whether Lane is best viewed as an outlier or a harbinger, and it will provide one of the first glimpses into how the new Chief Justice will approach disability rights and federalism issues.

Samuel R. Bagenstos will argue for Goodman, and Solicitor General Paul D. Clement will argue for the United States. Gregory A. Castanias of Jones Day will argue for Georgia, and Gene C. Schaerr of Winston & Strawn will argue for 12 states and Puerto Rico as amici curiae supporting respondents.

The brief of the United States is here. Goodman’s brief is here. The reply brief of the United States is here. Georgia’s brief can be found here. The amicus briefs can be accessed at this site.

Petitioner Tony Goodman is a state prisoner in Georgia who has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair for mobility. He claims that, because other prison facilities were inaccessible, state officials confined him in a 12-foot by 3-foot cell for 23 to 24 hours per day. Because the cell was too narrow to allow him to turn his wheelchair around, he was left essentially immobile. According to Goodman, he was also denied medical care, access to toilet and bathing facilities, and access to many other prison services — including the law library and religious services — that were available to non-disabled inmates. He claims that he suffered significant injuries from falls while trying to move himself to his toilet and shower, and that prison officials have repeatedly refused to help him transfer from his wheelchair.

In 1999, Goodman filed suit in federal district court against Georgia, the Georgia Department of Corrections, and several prison officials. In addition to a Section 1983 claim for violations of the Eighth Amendment, Goodman sought both money damages and injunctive relief under Title II of the ADA, which prohibits disability-based discrimination by public entities. While that suit was pending, the Supreme Court held in Board of Trustees v. Garrett that Title I of the ADA, which prohibits disability-based employment discrimination, did not validly abrogate the Eleventh Amendment’s guarantee of state sovereign immunity. Georgia then filed and won a summary judgment motion arguing that the Eleventh Amendment similarly barred Goodman’s Title II claim for damages against the state.

On appeal, the United States intervened to defend Title II as a valid exercise of Congress’s power to abrogate state sovereign immunity under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. While the appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Lane, which left open the question whether Title II abrogated state sovereign immunity for suits alleging discrimination in state services beyond the right of access to courts.

The Eleventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of Goodman’s monetary claims against the state. The court relied on one of its recent decisions, Miller v. King, in which it applied the same “proportionality and congruence” analysis used by the Supreme Court in Lane and concluded that Title II swept too broadly to be a valid use of Congress’s Section 5 power to abrogate state sovereign immunity in the prison context.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether Title II has teeth beyond the court-access suits addressed in Lane. An interesting wrinkle is created by the fact that Justice O’Connor provided the fifth, decisive vote in that case. If she leaves the bench before an opinion is issued, then she cannot vote on the case, and there is a chance of a 4-4 decision, which would affirm the Eleventh Circuit but lack any precedential value. The more likely scenario is that the Court would order reargument once her replacement is confirmed. The outcome would then turn on the views of Chief Justice Roberts and perhaps a newly confirmed Justice Alito, and whether petitioners could convince any of the Lane dissenters to take a different position in this case.

Goodman and the United States argue that Title II was a “congruent and proportional” response to potential violations of a broad range of constitutional rights. They argue that, like the court-access rights in Lane, the rights protected by Title II in the prison context are often subject to a “more searching” variety of judicial review, particularly because prisons’ complete control over inmates’ lives imposes some affirmative duties to provide for their welfare. Georgia, on the other hand, focuses on the right to be free from irrational discrimination. Unlike the claims in Lane, Georgia argues, discrimination in access to prison services and programs is subject only to rational-basis review, and courts must apply a deferential standard to decisions regarding state prison administration.

Goodman and the United States insist that Title II is “congruent and proportional” given the extensive history of discrimination by states against prisoners with disabilities, pointing to over 100 lawsuits by prisoners with disabilities claiming constitutional violations as evidence of the pervasiveness of this problem. When Congress passed the ADA, they claim, it had ample evidence that state discrimination was a widespread and intractable problem, including lessons from several previous attempts to protect prisoners’ rights and a series of hearings and reports. They urge that this history established the need for a comprehensive Congressional response and justified the exercise of Congress’s Section 5 power to abrogate state sovereign immunity. They also point out that, if the Court finds that Title II is not valid Section 5 legislation, then inmates would not be able to seek even injunctive relief in the prison context unless Title II could withstand likely state challenges to its validity as an exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause.

Georgia and its state amici disagree that an extensive historical record supports the conclusion that discrimination against prisoners with disabilities was a widespread problem. They assert that Congress was not concerned with discrimination in prisons when it passed the ADA, and that the judicial decisions proffered by petitioners are largely off the mark because most of those cases post-date the 1990 enactment of the ADA and thus couldn’t have been considered by Congress when it passed that legislation. Of the remaining cases, Georgia argues that only 11 are true examples of disability-based discrimination in state prisons, and that this is far too few to establish the type of widespread state violations that justify an abrogation of state sovereign immunity. Georgia contends that earlier legislative hearings are inapposite because the relevant issue is what Congress considered when it passed the ADA.

Goodman and the United States further assert that Title II is a “congruent and proportional” response because it primarily targets unconstitutional conduct. Title II’s requirement that states make only “reasonable” modifications that do not “fundamentally alter” the services provided is flexible enough to account for state concerns regarding prison safety and security. And, given the historical discrimination against state prisoners, Goodman argues, a state refusal to provide such accommodations will often amount to a constitutional violation. To the extent Title II reaches conduct that is not itself unconstitutional, this is a permissible attempt to deter unconstitutional conduct and reach cases in which it is difficult to prove a constitutional violation. Further, even if Title II is not valid prophylactic legislation, it should be upheld as valid remedial legislation in a case, like this one, that alleges actual violations of constitutional rights.

Georgia disputes that Title II is sensitive to state needs and points to the fact that there is no indication that it was specifically directed to the prison context. It contends that the ADA is “policy-based, social-advancement legislation” that would give prisoners with disabilities substantially greater rights than those guaranteed by the constitution itself. The state amici also urge that a blanket abrogation of all states’ sovereign immunity is particularly disproportionate when many states have no history of disability-based discrimination against state prisoners. They further point to the fact that prisoners have other effective means of remedying constitutional violations, such as Section 1983 suits, and that permitting prisoners to seek damages against states will likely spur expensive prison litigation. And, Georgia argues, evaluating Title II on a case-by-case basis would be inconsistent with the Court’s approach in Lane, and, in any event, Title II is disproportionate as a remedy to Eighth Amendment violations like those alleged by Goodman.

Goodman and the United States are supported by several amici, including former President George H.W. Bush (who signed the bill into law), whose brief discusses his motivations for supporting the ADA and the necessity of targeting discrimination in both public and private services. Other amici include the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the ACLU, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Bar Association, and numerous other professional and advocacy organizations.