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National Perspective | THE LAW

Justices Agree to Tee One Up

September 27, 2000|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court took up the case of partly disabled golfer Casey Martin on Tuesday and said that it will rule on whether antidiscrimination laws require sporting events to make special accommodations for disabled athletes.

The PGA Tour is challenging a judge's order that allows Martin to ride in a golf cart rather than walk the course. The case gives the high court another chance to clarify the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

It is one of 12 cases the high court added Tuesday to the hearing schedule for its upcoming term. Previously, 34 cases had been slated for argument from October to mid-December.

The justices gathered Monday for the first time since their summer recess and selected from more than 1,600 pending appeals. The new cases will be heard in January.

Police-Search Rules Among New Cases

They include tests of the police power to search for drugs and the scope of federal civil rights law. In an Oregon case, the court will decide whether police can use a thermal-imaging device to detect marijuana growing in a house. In an Alabama case, the justices will decide whether Spanish-speaking residents can challenge a state's policy of giving driver's tests in English only.

The Casey Martin case involves the law passed by Congress to protect the more than 43 million Americans who have mental or physical impairments that affect their ability to live and work. Generally, the law requires employers and owners of public buildings to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

Because of a rare circulatory disorder that affects his right leg, Martin, 28, finds it painful to walk more than a few steps. But he says that he can compete on the professional golf tour if he can ride in a cart.

"Golf is a game of shot making, not walking," he said in his legal appeal.

But PGA Tour officials said that all tournament golfers must play by the same rules, which includes walking about five miles a day on sometimes hot or hilly courses. It would "fundamentally alter" the nature of the competition if some players could ride rather than walk, the tour officials said.

A federal judge and, in March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected that argument, however. "A golf course is a place of public accommodation while the PGA is conducting a tournament there . . . [and] providing a golf cart to Martin was a reasonable accommodation to his disability," said Judge William C. Canby.

In its appeal in the case (PGA Tour vs. Martin, 00-24), the tour's lawyers attack this reasoning as flawed. A "public accommodation" usually refers to a hotel, restaurant or building that is open to all. While the general public may attend a golf tournament, only a few select players play on the course, they said.

To take a baseball example, the difference is between sitting in the outfield bleacher seats and standing on the pitcher's mound. While the baseball team must include ramps that would allow a fan in a wheelchair to get to his seat, the team need not alter its rules to allow a disabled player to compete on the field, the lawyers argue.

The thermal-imaging case from Oregon will test a new weapon in the war on drugs. Posed against it is the old-fashioned right to privacy in your home.

The court has upheld the use of dogs to detect drugs and low-flying helicopters to spot marijuana plants. In 1992, a federal agent in Florence, Ore., suspected that Danny Lee Kyllo might be involved in a marijuana ring. While seated in a parked car, the agent pointed a heat detector at Kyllo's home and found abnormally high levels of heat coming from the garage.

After obtaining a search warrant, the agents found that marijuana plants were being grown under high-intensity lights. Kyllo maintained that the search using the thermal imager was unconstitutional. When that claim failed, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 63 months in prison.

However, the Supreme Court recently has shown renewed interest in the 4th Amendment, and it agreed to take up his appeal (Kyllo vs. United States, 99-850).

Justices Asked to Restrict Rights Act

In the English-only case, Alabama state lawyers are urging the court to narrow the reach of the Civil Rights Act of 1976. It requires states, cities and colleges that received federal funds to comply with its antidiscrimination mandates. Those who refused could lose their federal funds.

Beyond that, people who believe that they have suffered discrimination also have filed private lawsuits against states or cities. But the Supreme Court never has ruled squarely on whether this part of the law allows private suits, as well as federal enforcement actions.

That question will be answered in this case (Alexander vs. Sandoval, 99-1908).

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