Special Education

Ruling on Disabled Golfer Could Be Applied to Schools

By Mark Walsh — June 06, 2001 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week that golfer Casey Martin has a right under federal law to use a cart will have an impact well beyond professional sports, legal experts say.

The court ruled 7-2 that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires the Professional Golf Association to allow a cart for Mr. Martin, who has a circulatory disorder in his right leg making it impossible for him to comply with a rule requiring participants to walk the golf course.

Separately, the court declined last week to hear appeals involving affirmative action in higher education admissions and the display of the Ten Commandments on municipal property.

The decision in PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin (Case No. 00- 24) concerned whether PGA tournaments are public places of business covered by the ADA, and whether Mr. Martin deserved an accommodation under the law. The majority’s answer was yes to both questions.

The ADA, “by its plain terms, prohibits [the PGA] from denying Martin equal access to its tours on the basis of his disability,” said the May 29 majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens.

The tour’s rule requiring walking “is not an essential attribute of the game itself,” Justice Stevens added. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, with Justice Scalia saying “the rules are the rules.”

“They are (as in all games) entirely arbitrary, and there is no basis on which anyone—not even the Supreme Court of the United States—can pronounce one or another of them to be ‘nonessential’ if the rulemaker (here the PGA Tour) deems it to be essential,” he wrote.

Justice Scalia predicted a wave of litigation seeking sports rules exceptions, such as “the parents of a Little League player with attention deficit disorder trying to convince a judge that their son’s disability makes it at least 25 percent more difficult to hit a pitched ball.” A judge, he wrote, might be tempted to give such a youngster a fourth strike.

School athletes, in fact, have increasingly invoked the ADA in recent years, seeking waivers not so much of game rules, but of eligibility regulations laid down by sports governance bodies. For example, several students with learning disabilities who remained in high school longer than usual have sought waivers of rules limiting the age of sports participants. Some have been successful; some haven’t.

Linda D. Kilb, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., said the ruling in the Casey Martin case “affirms what the ADA was intended to do, which is to have people stop and ask what is the purpose of a rule.”

“Let’s not inappropriately exclude people because they can’t accomplish the purpose,” she added. The group supported Mr. Martin in his legal battle.

While the ruling could help plaintiffs challenging regulations in scholastic sports, Ms. Kilb said she does not believe it will lead to a lot of court-ordered changes in sports rules, because of the court’s emphasis that the ADA should not be construed to require a fundamental alteration to a sport’s rules.

Affirmative Action

Also on May 29, the court passed up an opportunity to consider the issue of affirmative action in higher education. The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of three white applicants who challenged the use of race in admissions decisions at the University of Washington Law School.

The three students were denied admission to the law school from 1994 to 1996 while the school admitted black and Latino applicants whose high school grade point averages and admissions-test results were lower when combined in an “index.”

The university, after the initiation of the case that was appealed to the Supreme Court, ended its affirmative action program to comply with a 1998 ballot measure, passed by Washington state voters, that prohibits racial preferences in public education.

In a ruling last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held that most of the white applicants’ case was moot because of the passage of the voter initiative. However, the court declared that the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was still the law of the land, and that colleges could take race into account in admissions decisions.

The 9th Circuit court said the narrow concurring opinion of then Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the Bakke case, which supported racial considerations to promote diversity in education, is the controlling legal precedent.

In the Supreme Court appeal in Smith v. University of Washington Law School (No. 00-1341), the white applicants urged justices to use the case to settle a conflict among lower federal courts about whether race could be taken into account in admissions.

But the state argued that because of the 1998 referendum, the Washington state case amounts to a “hypothetical and premature” appeal.

The justices will have another opportunity to take up an affirmative action case in the next few weeks. The state of Texas has appealed the latest ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, in a long-running case known as Texas v. Hopwood.

In the best-known ruling in that case, a 5th Circuit panel ruled 2-1 in 1996 that race-based affirmative action can never be justified on the basis of promoting diversity. The Supreme Court declined to review that ruling later that year.

Ten Commandments

Separately last week, the high court declined an invitation to clarify under what circumstances it is constitutional to display the Ten Commandments on government property.

The Supreme Court on May 29 declined the appeal in City of Elkhart v. Books (No. 00-1407).

Advocates of public displays of the commandments urged the court to use the case involving a monument outside the Elkhart, Ind., municipal building to clarify its 1980 ruling in Stone v. Graham, which struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

Despite that ruling, there have been considerable efforts in recent years to promote the display of the commandments in schools, either in hallways or as part of larger displays of historical documents that form the foundation for the U.S. legal system.

In the Elkhart case, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 2-1 last year that the monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958 violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion and must be removed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ruling on Disabled Golfer Could Be Applied to Schools

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