The first U.S. Supreme Court case involving the virus that causes AIDS also gives the court its first opportunity to interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The case holds potential implications for schools and their treatment of employees and students who are HIV-positive. It could also affect how people with other contagious conditions are treated under a variety of disability laws.
In the case argued before the court last week, the justices must decide whether and when a person who carries the human immunodeficiency virus but shows no symptoms of AIDS is considered disabled under the 1990 federal disability law.
In Bragdon v. Abbott (Case No. 97-156), the high court is considering the case of Sidney Abbott, a woman whose Bangor, Me., dentist refused to treat her for a cavity at his office after he learned she was HIV-positive. The dentist said he would need to treat her in a hospital, which would have made the procedure more expensive.
The woman filed a discrimination suit under the ADA and won rulings in the federal district and appellate courts. Those courts said that a person with HIV, regardless of whether he or she has acute symptoms of AIDS, has a physical impairment that affects a major life activity and thus makes the person disabled under the act.
The courts said reproduction is the major life activity affected by HIV-positive status.
Although the Bragdon case is the first to directly involve the AIDS virus, the justices were aware of the AIDS crisis in 1987 when they decided a case involving a Florida school district that had fired a teacher who suffered a relapse of tuberculosis.
In School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, the high court ruled that a person with a contagious disease such as tuberculosis may be considered disabled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Public schools are barred from discriminating against people with disabilities under both the Rehabilitation Act and the more recent ADA.
In the Arline case, the high court declined to reach a decision about whether the carrier of a contagious disease such as HIV who does not have its symptoms could be considered disabled under Section 504.
Since the ADA’s enactment, the Department of Justice has taken the view that HIV-positive status is automatically a physical impairment that qualifies as a disability.
During oral arguments on March 30, some justices were troubled about whether to accept that widely accepted proposition. Justice David H. Souter said an HIV-positive person might forgo sex and reproduction as a result of a “responsible moral decision” to prevent spreading the disease. But he was not convinced that it was a physical limitation that would qualify the person as disabled.
The case should be decided by early July.
Spec. Ed. Case
In a separate action, the justices rejected without comment last week an appeal from an Indiana family that had asked the court to decide whether the main federal special education law requires a school district to provide an instructional aide for a student enrolled at a private religious school.
The court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not bar a district from providing such an aide. But lower courts have generally interpreted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as not requiring the provision of an aide when parents voluntarily enroll a child eligible for special education services in a private school.
In its appeal in K.R.v. Anderson Community School Corp. (No. 97-960), the Indiana family argued that the issue remains ambiguous even after Congress reauthorized the IDEA last year.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled last year that Congress made clear in the reauthorized IDEA that districts have no obligation to provide comparable services to disabled children in private schools when such children have been offered a free, appropriate public education. The justices declined to disturb that ruling.