Maine A Pacesetter In Rights For Disabled

By: - May 10, 2001 12:00 am

In a 5-4 ruling last February, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law that protects handicapped citizens from job discrimination. The ruling could affect the disabled in many states, but not those who live in Maine. It acted to guarantee rights for the disabled even before Congress tackled the issue.

When William J. Schneider was elected a state representative three years ago, he says “big parts” of the capitol here were off-limits to him. It had nothing to do with political party affiliation, however. It was because Schneider is a paraplegic, and the State House was not completely wheelchair accessible.

“As far as I know, I am the first wheelchair disabled in the Legislature,” says Schneider, a Republican. “I kind of pointed up the problem. The timing turned out to be fairly fortunate for me and other disabled people in Maine because the State House was undergoing renovations at the time.”

Until recently, Schneider and others who are disabled and are employed by the state could have sued in federal court for damages under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act if they believed that they were victims of job discrimination. But a 5-4 ruling last February by the Supreme Court of the United States changed that. The Court found that Congress, which passed the A.D.A. in 1990, could not impose obligations on the states that go beyond constitutional limitations, and therefore state government workers have no protection against discrimination under federal law. The decision involved two separate lawsuits by state employees in Alabama, who charged that they were discriminated against because of their disabilities.

Indeed, in his majority opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that it would be “entirely rational and therefore constitutional for a state employer to conserve scarce financial resources by hiring employees who are able to use existing facilities.”

“I thought it was an unfortunate decision,” says Schneider, 42, who had been a prosecutor in the Maine Attorney General’s office before being elected to the Legislature. He suffered a complete spinal cord injury in 1985, in a car accident when he was in the Army. While Schneider believes he could be affected by this Court decision if he lived in another state, here he is protected by the Maine Human Rights Act, a law that is at least as comprehensive as the federal A.D.A. The Maine law was passed in 1971, and two years later the provision prohibiting physical disability discrimination was enacted.

“I think ours was groundbreaking in how comprehensive it was,” says Schneider.

John Carnes, chief attorney for the Maine Human Rights Commission, the agency responsible for investigating discrimination charges, agrees. “I think we were one of the first states to enact state legislation that was at least as strong as the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” he says. “We probably were one of the first states to have a blanket prohibition against disability discrimination applicable to all employers in the state.”

But Carnes worries that the Supreme Court ruling “could be a very serious problem” for disabled public employees in states that do not have a statute to protect them. “They now have no federal right or option, so it limits their options in seeking remedies for discrimination against their state employer,” he says.

“On the other hand,” Carnes notes, “the Maine Human Rights Act has been in place for many years, long before the A.D.A., and it’s a very strong statute and the Maine Supreme Court has interpreted it liberally and in a very supportive manner for many years.”

Carnes says that the Maine law provides a protective buffer for state workers, adding that “it’s not vulnerable to the same kind of challenge because it’s not something inflicted on the state from outside. It’s adopted from within.”

Richard O’Meara, a civil litigation attorney in Portland and one of the legal directors of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, calls it “a question of sovereign immunity, and that’s really where the Supreme Court came down in that case, where they said the states’ sovereign immunity cannot be abrogated in the way that it had been in the statute by Congress.”The problem, according to O’Meara, is that the A.D.A. created “sort of a uniform national standard” to protect disabled state workers against discrimination, and without the federal law “you end up with a patchwork across the country, with each state making up its own rules.”

Carnes is confident, though, that all of Maine’s 12 thousand state employees, including the physically disabled such as Schneider, “still have a very effective option in terms of seeking remedies for disability discrimination” because the protections under the Maine Human Rights Act “are comparable to any remedies they could have obtained under the A.D.A.”

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