The Department has been actively engaged in defending the constitutionality of the ADA. The Department intervenes in private suits across the country to defend the constitutionality of the statute against challenges by state defendants.  In early 2001, the Supreme Court limited the reach of the ADA by holding in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett141 that a private individual may not, consistent with the Constitution, sue a State or state agency to enforce the employment discrimination protections in Title I of the ADA. The Court held that States are protected from such suits by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.  Following earlier decisions holding that Con-gress may remove States' immunity only when acting pursuant to its powers under the Four-teenth Amendment, the Court in Garrett held that Title I's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability went beyond Congress's authority under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Thus plaintiffs may not sue a State directly to enforce Title I.

The Garrett opinion, however, does not bar all ADA actions challenging state and local government policies or practices. The Court made clear that the federal government may continue to sue States for injunctive relief and money damages under Title I, and that private individuals may sue state officials in their official capacities as long as the plaintiffs do not seek money damages. Also, the Garrett decision only prohibited Title I suits against state governments, not cities or counties, because sovereign immunity as embodied in the Eleventh Amendment does not apply to local governments. Moreover, the Court left open the question whether private individuals may sue States under Title II, as opposed to Title I.

Following the decision in Garrett, numerous lawsuits were brought against state and local governments under Title II of the ADA. The Department has intervened in scores of cases at all levels of the federal court system throughout the country to defend the constitutionality of Title II  in these private suits. The cases involve a wide range of claims regarding courts, prisons, public transit, voting, public education, parking placards, licensing, and institutionalization. In defending the constitutionality of Title II of the ADA, the Department has argued that Congress had the authority to remove States' immunity because the ADA is an appropriate and constitutional means of remedying the history of pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities.

Since Garrett, the Supreme Court has addres-sed the application of Title II in two instances. In 2004, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Tennessee v. Lane,142 holding that individuals may sue States directly to require States to make their courts and judicial services accessible under the ADA. The plaintiffs alleged that the State of Tennessee and 25 of its counties violated the ADA by having inaccessible courthouses. They asked the federal court to order that the courts be made accessible and to award compensatory damages. One plaintiff, a wheelchair user who was charged with two misdemeanor offenses, alleged that he had to crawl up two flights of stairs to make a required court appearance. The other, a court reporter who is also a wheelchair user, alleged that many of Tennessee's courthouses and courtrooms had barriers that made it difficult for her to practice her profession. The Court held that Title II is an appropriate response by Congress to prevent denial of the right of access to state courts in light of the history of unconstitutional treatment by States of people with disabilities. The Lane decision left open the question of the constitutionality of Title II suits challenging state practices or policy in other areas of activity. 

Following Lane, the Supreme Court in 2006 ruled unanimously in United States v. Georgia143 that a prisoner could proceed with his Title II claims for damages against the State of Georgia to the extent that his claims alleged independent violations of the Constitution. The Court's opinion did not address the extent to which individuals may enforce Title II against States to secure ADA rights in prison that are more expansive than those that are provided by the Constitution.  The plaintiff, a prisoner who has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair, alleged that his cell was too small for him to maneuver his wheelchair, making it impossible for him to gain access to his bed, toilet, and shower without assistance, which was often denied. He also claimed that architectural barriers in the prison prevented him from using the library, attending religious services, and participating in a wide range of counseling, education, and vocational training programs. The Court remanded the case to the district court to determine which of his Title II claims would also allege constitutional violations.

As a result of the decision in United States v. Georgia, many Title II cases pending in appellate courts are being sent back to district courts to determine whether they can be upheld because they seek to enforce Title II rights that do not go further than those protected by the Constitution. The Department of Justice is continuing its nationwide effort to intervene in such cases and others to defend the constitutionality of Title II of the ADA.


141 Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001).
142 Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004).
143 United States v. Georgia, 126 S. Ct. 877 (2006).

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