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Supreme Court May Weaken Federal Protection for Disabled

January 22, 2000|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Continuing its states' rights drive, the Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider stripping disabled state employees of their federal protection.

In the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Congress made it illegal for employers to discriminate against a qualified worker who has a mental or physical disability.

Employers are not only private businesses. They include state agencies and public colleges.

But beginning in 1996, the court's conservative majority has insisted that states and their agencies have a "sovereign immunity" from private lawsuits brought under federal law.

Last June, the court, on a 5-4 vote, said that state probation officers who were not paid the overtime wages required by federal law could not sue the state of Maine to get the money. On Jan. 11, the court extended that principle to block claims from state employees who were discriminated against because of their age.

Now, the court will take up a nearly identical challenge involving workers with disabilities.

Florida prison guard Wellington Dickson said he was discriminated against because of his age and disability, a heart condition. He said he was assigned to duty on the watchtower even though supervisors knew he could not climb the steps. His age discrimination claim was dismissed without a trial as a result of the Jan. 11 high court ruling.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta said that Dickson was entitled to a trial on the disability claim, but Friday the justices took up Florida's appeal. The state's lawyers say that the state is shielded from those claims too.

The case (Florida Department of Corrections vs. Dickson, 98-829) will be heard in April, and a ruling will be handed down by late June.

On all the recent cases testing the balance of power between Washington and the states, the court has been sharply divided into two blocs: the nationalists versus states' rights champions.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas have voted consistently for the principle of "state sovereign immunity."

If they do so again in the disabilities case, the effect will be broader in California than elsewhere.

Public school districts in California were held in earlier rulings to be arms of the state because funding flows from Sacramento. Therefore, school districts, as well as other state agencies, can claim "state sovereign immunity" if they are sued in federal court by teachers and other school employees.

Until recently, Congress was seen as having broad power to remedy civil rights violations by the states. But that assumption has been put in doubt. The opinion issued Jan. 11 says that Congress can attack only the kinds of discrimination that the court has deemed unconstitutional. That means only race and gender bias, said O'Connor. It presumably excludes discrimination based on disabilities, as well as age bias.

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