SACRAMENTO — Nearly eight months after Gov. Gray Davis announced that he would give up the state's fight to charge disabled drivers for their parking placards, he has yet to withdraw an appeal he filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case. Nor has a penny been paid to disabled Californians who were charged the $6 fee.
The dispute has triggered a case of finger-pointing between the Davis administration and the attorney representing the disabled in settlement talks.
Andy Hall, the Los Angeles lawyer representing the disabled, said negotiations have stalled because of what he described as an unwillingness by the state to make restitution. He estimated the amount, including interest, owed to drivers who paid the now-suspended placard fee at $20 million.
So far, Hall said, state lawyers have not offered a penny in restitution.
"I don't see why the state is making such a big deal out of $10 million to $20 million taken by the state from persons with disabilities," Hall said. "They're not giving anything away; they would only be giving it back."
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said Hall's depiction of the negotiations could not be further from the truth.
"We've made repeated appeals to begin settlement talks, agreeing that everything will be on the table," McLean said. "But they have refused to come to the table. They want a pre-concession that their attorneys' fees are going to be paid."
Davis said his withdrawal of the appeal would hinge on successful settlement negotiations.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Hall in 1996 on behalf of Rob Dare, a quadriplegic war veteran from Carson.
The lawsuit, which was later given class-action status, was aimed at stopping the state from collecting the fee on the grounds that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The plaintiffs also sought restitution for drivers who had paid the fee.
Two federal courts said California's fee violated the law. Davis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, contending that the tags were a supplemental benefit, offered to the disabled by the state at a rate below cost.
Davis' appeal drew criticism from advocates for the disabled and from members of his own party. The governor did an abrupt turnabout in June, announcing that he was ready to give up the fight and that state lawyers would be instructed to settle the case.
Angered by Davis' handling of the matter, state Senate leader John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat, held up confirmation of the governor's nominee for Department of Motor Vehicles director (Steven Gourley won confirmation last month). But Burton warned Gourley that if the placard matter was not settled soon, Gourley would be "the director of the department with the smallest budget since the war."
Whether the state could be required by a court to make restitution in the case may rest on the outcome of a case from Alabama, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October.
In that case, lawyers for the state of Alabama urged the justices to shield states from federal discrimination claims brought by people with disabilities. If the justices side with Alabama officials, Hall said, it is unlikely that his clients will have the legal footing they need to get their money back.