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Feminist Majority "Supreme Court in Peril" Chat Series of 2003

jimwardJIM WARD, President, ADA Watch

Jim Ward is the founder and president of ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights, a grassroots alliance of hundreds of national, state, and local disability and civil rights organizations united to protect and strengthen the civil rights of people with disabilities. Ward previously worked as the Director of Public Policy for the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, the nationwide network of federally-mandated disability law centers. He was also the Director of Disability Rights for People For the American Way, as well as Assistant Vice President of Government Relations for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Ward is a former elected offical and was executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Moderator: Welcome.
Jim Ward: Thank you for inviting me on behalf of the disability community. Weve worked very closely with the Feminist Majority. In fact, I believe the Feminist Majority was one of the first organizations to oppose Jeffrey Sutton, which the disability community worked very hard on. I should also mention that ADA Watch is a program of the National Coalition for Disability Rights. Were an alliance of hundreds of disability and civil rights organizations united to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. In addition to working on judicial nominations were currently working on grassroots and legislative strategies for restoring the ADA and to put back the civil rights protections that have been undone by the Supreme Court.
posted:6/17/2003 1:49:00 PM CST

Ann: What sorts of protections does the Americans with Disabilities Act offer? Im sure its a bit too much to put here, but a synopsis would be great!
Jim Ward: ADA Watch was formed because of the disability communitys unity and support for the ADA, which was passed in 1990. When it was passed, the ADA was viewed as a sweeping civil rights act aimed at preventing discrimination and enhancing opportunity for children and adults with disabilities. While many people are familiar with the ADA for its access protections, such as providing ramps and eliminating physical barriers, the ADA offers a host of civil rights protections - in the workplace, in places of business, and throughout everyday life. The ADA provides comprehensive civil rights protections to persons with disabilities in the area of employment, state and local government service, puiblic accomodations, and telecommunications - basic rights for all Americans.

And of course the passage of the ADA alone has not created the change that weve hoped for. In fact, more than 70% of people with disabilities are unemployed. Therefore, the cultural and attitudinal changes that many of us hoped the ADA would bring about have not yet fully occurred. The current climate, both in the courts and in the media, has tended to focus on the ADA as a benefit program or charitable gesture, as opposed to a civil rights law. The disability community is united to create grassroots change to make people realize this is an important and progressive civil rights law that must be enforced in order to be effective.
posted:6/17/2003 2:00:00 PM CST

Julie: What have disability groups been doing to stop conservative court nominations?
Jim Ward: The disability community to date has been most active and most visible on the judicial nomination of Jeffrey Sutton to the 6th District Court of Appeals. And the community was galvanized prior to the Garrett decision, in which Sutton was the lead attorney. The Garrett decision, which subsequently went against the community and against Pat Garrett, a nurse with breast cancer, basically stated that Congress did not have the authority to impose on the states the payment of attorney fees in ADA cases. It was soon after that decision that Pres. Bush nominated Sutton, and the community was outraged. We had worked hard on trying to influence the public debate on Garrett, including having the March for Justice, a gathering of people with disabilities, activists, and supporters. It was one of the largest events weve had in the history of the movement. It included not just Justin Dart and other leaders from the disability rights community, but also leaders from the civil rights community, womens community, and others who were united. As soon as Suttons nomination was announced, the community came out in opposition, and ultimately we had over 500 disability rights and other civil rights organizations opposed to Jeffrey Sutton.
posted:6/17/2003 2:13:00 PM CST

Jamie: What are you currently doing on judicial nominations?
Jim Ward: Currently ADA Watch has united disability organizations against the nomination of William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bill Pryor is currently the Attorney General of Alabama, and the 11th Circuit is comprised of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Interestingly, when we were fighting the Sutton battle, many of Suttons supporters said that he was just a hired gun, just an attorney working for a client. Now as we turn to the Pryor confirmation, we see the person who actually hired Jeffrey Sutton. So they cant argue this time that hes just a hired gun. His opposition to disability rights is, in fact, his own thinking.

Pryors confirmation to a federal appeals court judgeship would undermine the ability of people with disabilities to enforce important civil rights protections given to them by Congress. Pryor has been an outspoken advocate for states rights, and has fought aggressively to prevent people with disabilities from enforcing their rights under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against the states. Pryor is a member of the Federalist Society and participates in other right-wing think tanks that promote a states rights agenda. ADA Watch will continue to gather letters of opposition, organize events on the Hill, and make Senators aware of our strong opposition to this nomination.
posted:6/17/2003 2:20:00 PM CST

Edie: Other than the possibility of an anti-disability rights Supreme Court or lower court justice, what else has the Bush administration been doing to undermine disability rights?
Jim Ward: The ADA was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is nonpartisan and should maintain the support of the White House and Congress regardless of which party is in control. However, we have seen from this White House a tendency to nominate and appoint individuals who have openly worked against the ADA and disability rights. This administration has also been on the wrong side of several cases that have gone to the Supreme Court. And I believe that many of the difficulties this administration is running into regarding disability rights is grounded in their reliance on the Federalist Society and other right-wing organizations that have consistently worked to undermine the ADA and other civil rights protections. This gets back to changing the consciousness in our culture regarding how people view both people with disabilities and the ADA. This adminstration could be a part of promoting the ADA as being good for business, about increasing employment of all people regardless of their disability. And this will take a willingness on the part of the administration to distance themselves from the extremist groups who want to attack the ADA as an unreasonable federal mandate. Most importantly, this means not just having press conferences about the ADA, but aggressively enforcing the ADA.
posted:6/17/2003 2:26:00 PM CST

Joy: How do you respond to people who feel that the ADA has solved all problems of people with disabilities?
Jim Ward: The ADA was an incredible accomplishment that followed the hard work of many, many individuals and organizations. Its passage occurred because of a coalition effort that included not only the disability community, but civil rights groups, womens groups, and social justice organizations. The vision of the ADA, however, has not been fully implemented. In addition to the weakening decisions by the Supreme Court, the potential of the ADA has not been fully realized because of a lack of federal enforcement. Only when the ADA is fully enforced by the Justice Department will we see the sweeping societal changes that the ADA represents.
posted:6/17/2003 2:32:00 PM CST

Pam: How have the lower courts impacted disability rights? Why are lower court nominations so important?
Jim Ward: Many, many more ADA cases are heard at the lower court level than at the Supreme Court, so the disability community and others can have much more impact by being aware of those cases and nominations at the appeals level. In fact, one startling statistic is that more than 95% of all ADA cases are dismissed on summary judgment. This means that the alleged discrimination is never even examined by a judge or jury, and the focus has been on whether or not a person is worthy of protection under the ADA. So much of the public debate has been about, is a person disabled enough rather than the alleged discriminatory behavior of employers. Again, this kind of thinking turns a judge into a social worker, and the focus is on charity and whether the person with a disability is deserving of protections under the ADA. We need to educate judges and, indeed, the general public about the ADA and about discrimination - and remind all that the ADA is about civil rights. And by working on lower court nominees, our community is better readied for the Supreme Court battles that we will surely face in the near future.
posted:6/17/2003 2:36:00 PM CST

Lizzy: What are some upcoming Supreme Court cases on disability rights? How would a change in the makeup of the court have an impact?
Jim Ward: Interestingly, in California, the disability rights advocates actually stopped a case from going to the Supreme Court - the Hason case. Again, this shows the forward thinking of the disability community, and the willingness to get involved and stop cases from going to the Supreme Court, because we know that because of the current makeup of the Supreme Court, were likely to face more weakening decisions. That case was stopped by the disability communitys intensive lobbying of the governor and the attorney general.

Currently, the state of Tennessee has asked the Supreme Court to hear another case involving the constitutionality of Title II of the ADA. At issue in the case, called State of Tennessee v. Lane and Jones, is whether Congress had the constitutional authority to require states to pay money damages for violation of Title II of the ADA. A negative ruling might suggest that Congress did not have the power to enact many of the core provisions of the ADA. Since many of the weakening decisions regarding the ADA have occurred with that infamous 5-4 split, theres good reason to believe that we will lose this case as well. Because so many of these cases have been decided in this same manner, the disability community is deeply concerned about the makeup of the court, and deeply aware of the fact that one justice can make a huge difference regarding the ADA and the civil rights of people with disabilities. As long as this administration appoints another judge who adheres to the states rights agenda, we will continue to see people with disabilities subject to the patchwork of inconsistent state laws.
posted:6/17/2003 2:43:00 PM CST

Karen: You mentioned earlier that you wanted disability to be thought of not as an issue of charity, but of civil rights. Can you elaborate on this? How does disability rights fit into the progressive agenda?
Jim Ward: Central to the disability rights movement is advocacy for equality and opportunity. There is great concern in the community that the Supreme Court, members of the administration, the media, and others tend to view the ADA as an entitlement program. Our work on judicial nominations has brought us even closer day-to-day with our colleagues in the progressive community, and we seek to further deepen these relationships to advance our message of civil rights.

Many on the right have attacked the ADA as being a burden on business, and many well-funded think tanks are working with certain members of Congress to propose legislation which would weaken the ADA, such as the ADA Notification Act. Yes, that is a silly name for something dealing with a law thats been around for more than a decade. Despite the fact that business wins in the wide majority of ADA cases, our opponents continue to seek to further weaken the law. Businesses have access to money and resources the likes of which we will never be able to acquire. But it is through our partnerships and coalition with our colleagues in the progressive community that we will get the numbers and the voice to win this battle. Ultimately this struggle is not just about people with disabilities, but about how our nation deals with humanity.
posted:6/17/2003 2:55:00 PM CST

Joy: How would one make a career out of disability rights advocacy?
Jim Ward: Like anything else, just stepping up to the plate and getting involved is the best way to do it. There are hundreds of disability rights organizations, most of which need volunteer support and would welcome individuals motivated to work for justice. I would want to steer you towards our coalition site,, which again is a coalition of hundreds of organizations working to protect the ADA. People get involved with disability rights for many reasons. They might be people with disabilities, parents, friends, teachers, and leaders that take on the disability rights cause. More than any time before, we need to change how the media and how our elected officials look at people with disabilities. You can impact this by writing letters to the editor, by phoning and meeting with your elected officials, and by joining us in action at events in Washington and in your state capitals. We need to really be clear during this time where budgets are being slashed to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy that there is a human face that potentially illustrates the consequences of these short-term actions. Young people, seniors, and people of all ages can be part of putting a human face on the ADA and on the disability rights struggle.
posted:6/17/2003 3:03:00 PM CST

Moderator: Thanks for participating.
Jim Ward: Thank you for joining me today. I hope that you will join us in our fight
to protect our rights. For more information about judicial nominations and
getting involved visit either the ADA Watch website at or the Feminist Majoritys Million4Roe campaign site
at We hope you will join us again tomorrow at
3pm for our continuing June chat series, Supreme Court in Peril.
posted:6/17/2003 3:11:00 PM CST

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