The U.S. Supreme Court has handed disability rights advocates a victory, though a more limited one than they had sought. The high court on May 17 ruled that states could be sued under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act for failing to provide access to courthouses. But it stopped short of allowing suits against all types of state buildings.

The 5-4 decision in "Tennessee v. Lane" is a departure from previous Supreme Court rulings that shielded states against certain lawsuits. The case was originated in 1998 by two paraplegics, George Lane and Beverly Jones, who contended that they were denied access to Tennessee courts because of their disabilities. Lane claimed he had to go to the second floor of a county courthouse to answer criminal charges. The High Court's opinion said, "At his first appearance, Lane crawled up two flights of stairs to get to the courtroom."

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Lane and Jones alleged that the state had violated Title II of the ADA, which says that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity."

Writing for the majority of the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said that Title II of the ADA "as it applies to the class of cases implicating the fundamental right of access to the courts, constitutes a valid exercise of [congressional] authority to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the opinion, Stevens also noted that ADA requires "reasonable modifications" of buildings to accommodate the handicapped. For facilities built or altered before 1992, the law's implementing regulations say that public agencies may adopt "a variety of less costly measures" instead of structural changes to the buildings themselves, Stevens added.

The state of Tennessee, which asked the Supreme Court to take the case, wanted it to rule on all of Title II's applications, including such areas as access to public education, voting booths and state-owned hockey rinks. But Stevens wrote, "Whatever might be said about Title II's other applications, the question presented in this case is not whether Congress can validly subject the states to private suits for money damages for failing to provide reasonable access to hockey rinks, or even to voting booths, but whether Congress had the power under [the Fourteenth Amendment] to enforce the constitutional right of access to the courts."

Alan A. Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, is concerned about the ruling’s narrow scope. “The decision focuses on the right to access a courtroom, rather than the full range of state facilities,” Reich says.

The American Institute of Architects had no comment on the decision, an AIA official says.