Prisoners and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to prisoners.

Before we denounce the justices for yet another outrage, let's look at the facts: Ronald R. Yeskey was sentenced to serve 18-36 months in a Pennsylvania lock up but was recommended for a place in a "Motivational Boot Camp" for first-time offenders. Success in the program would get Yeskey out on parole in just six months, but Yeskey was refused admission because of his medical history of high blood pressure. So he sued the Department of Corrections, claiming to be a victim of unfair discrimination under title II of the federal ADA.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits a "public entity" from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability" on account of that individual's disability. Justice Scalia wrote for a unanimous Court that, "The text of the ADA provides no basis for distinguishing [correctional] programs, services, and activities from those provided by public entities that are not prisonsThe plain text of Title II of the ADA unambiguously extends to state prison inmates." Case closed.

The court cannot be faulted for its reasoning nor its conclusion. No judicial activism here. It applied the statute as it found it, just the way conservatives pray for.

David Letterman has his "stupid pet tricks" but Congress topped him with its ADA "stupid legislative trick." Signed into law by President Bush eight years ago on July 26, the Act was opposed by only 6 of 100 senators while the House embraced it 377 to 28. It was a bipartisan lovefest.

Bush compared its passage to the fall of the Berlin Wall. More accurately, The New York Times referred to ADA as an "unabashed venture into social engineering," while Republican Sen. Bill Armstrong of Colorado predicted that "It will engender wave upon wave of court rulings that will extend the bill far beyond its intended purposes."

If Congress had wanted to exempt prisons from the burdens of ADA, it could have exempted them. And it could exempt them today, but it does not want to. Victimhood runs the legal and political system, in or out of jail, whether it mandates the Professional Golfers Association to accommodate a golfer in a cart or a prison system to modify its cells to provide a larger turning radius for wheelchair users.

Association to accommodate a golfer in a cart or a prison system to modify its cells to provide a larger turning radius for wheelchair users.

The tenth amendment says that all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people. Therefore, the authority in the Constitution for the ADA might seem shaky but the Supreme Court found the Act passes constitutional muster in another prison case last month.

The real authority for such tyranny over the states is the fourteenth amendment, which reads in part, "No State[can] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Originally intended to secure equal rights for former slaves, this "elastic" statement, along with statutes like the ADA, today gives prisoners a convenient basis to sue correctional officials for any perceived shortfalls in their "rights."

The thirteenth amendment banning slavery was more carefully crafted because it said, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." So prisoners, denied their liberty as the primary punishment and therefore different to begin with, can still be forced to work as part of their punishment.

The erosion of our liberties and centralization of power occurs gradually and always for noble-sounding reasons. Alexander Hamilton warned in the Federalist Papers that "There is one transcendant advantage belonging to the province of the State governments, the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice." Of course, the new understanding is that all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C.

Justice Scalia observed that the ADA has "breadth" and the Justice Department could not agree more. The ADA must remedy the "serious and pervasive disability-based discrimination throughout society documented by Congress," and "ensure the equal protection of the rights of prisoners with disabilities." It's quite a burden but somebody's got to do it. The ADA allegedly is "rooted in common sense" yet aims to relegate the existence of a disability to a "non-issue."

As courts and legislatures recognize more and more psuedo-rights, the absurdity (and cost) escalates. Every wrong, real or imagined, must be righted through legislation. The best is yet to come.