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Antonin Scalia's hostility toward civil rights claims was evident in many of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases that came before him on the U.S Supreme Court.
In two cases, Sutton v. United Airlines Inc. and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams, the Court diluted the ADA definition of disability to the point where many people with legitimate disabilities could no longer bring claims. In both cases, Scalia voted with the majority. As a result, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 specifically to undo the damage of those rulings.
Perhaps the most well-known ADA case was PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin, in which the majority ruled that the Professional Golfers Association had to let disabled golfer Casey Martin use a golf cart during competitions. In this case, Scalia wrote a caustic dissent calling the decision an “Alice in Wonderland determination.” He wrote, “Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question.”
But the most significant Supreme Court ADA case was Olmstead v. L.C and E.W. In this case, two disabled women from Georgia were being indefinitely kept in an institution despite their stated desire to be supported in a community setting. A 6-3 majority ruled that such arbitrary institutionalization of people with disabilities violates the ADA. As a result, the women moved into a community-living situation, as have thousands of others with disabilities.
But again, Scalia joined the dissent, written by Clarence Thomas, that belittled the idea that endless institutionalization equals discrimination. “By adopting such a broad view of discrimination, the majority drains the term of any meaning other than as a proxy for decisions disapproved of by this Court,” the opinion read.
Imagine what would have happened if Scalia and the dissenters had prevailed in the Olmstead case. The two women may well have been locked away in an institution for the rest of their lives.
But in another high court ruling, Scalia got it right. In Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, the justices unanimously and resolutely ruled that the rights of prisoners with disabilities are protected by the ADA. Scalia wrote the opinion.
Court decisions on civil right laws like the ADA significantly impact the lives of the millions of Americans. It’s imperative that Scalia’s successor be a strong defender of civil rights—someone who understands, much more than Scalia did, that disability rights are civil rights.