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'Feel good' laws make for confusing interpretations

A narrow court ruling upholding one small aspect of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act highlights the problems that ensue when Congress passes feel-good legislation that turns out to be imprecise and more sweeping than in keeping with the constitutional ideal of limited government.

Sloppy language in laws allows — sometimes requires — the courts to step in to interpret what the legislature really meant or should have meant.

Although the current Supreme Court decision might have little practical impact, it does mark a setback for one of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s pet projects: carving out a little larger niche of freedom and power for state governments vis-a-vis the national government than has been considered proper for at least the last 50 years or so.

At issue was a provision in the 1990 law, which sought to increase access to both public and private facilities for people with certain disabilities, that allowed individuals to sue state governments in federal court for failing to make facilities accessible. The potential problem is that the 11th Amendment gives states some protection against lawsuits brought in federal court by citizens of another state.

The high court recently had limited citizens’ rights to sue state governments in federal court. In 2001, for example, it ruled that state employees couldn’t sue under ADA for discrimination against disabled people because the court found no evidence of systematic discrimination by the states.

In the narrow case before it Tuesday, however, a man who refused to crawl or be carried up the stairs to traffic court and was then cited for failure to appear sued the state of Tennessee. It seems about 60 percent of Tennessee’s courts are handicapped-accessible, but not all of them.

The Supreme Court declined to rule on whether the broader right to sue contemplated in the ADA was valid, confining itself to the narrow issue of access to court. On that issue a suit is valid, it said. The case can now go to trial.

In general, it’s healthy to see the doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” under which governments can only be sued if they grant permission to the plaintiff, weakened. But in a federalist system, does weakening the powers of a state government, even if ostensibly on behalf of individual citizens, lead to making the central government more powerful?

That is the issue that troubles Chief Justice Rehnquist.

“States’ rights,” as history has shown us, can be used to preserve noxious traditions like legally enforced racial segregation. But the founders honored states’ rights as a check on the power of the central government and as a proxy for individual liberty.

Such state powers are not, therefore, inconsequential. In this case, however, it is easier to find a valid justification for Congress regulating state government actions constitutionally — which has turned out to be controversial — than for regulating individuals and private businesses directly; in this day and age, that’s too common and not especially controversial, though the Constitution doesn’t clearly grant Congress that authority.

Bad legislation usually makes for confused court decisions trying to interpret the law. That is clearly the case here.