Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in the case of a paraplegic Georgia prison inmate may indicate a lull in the high court’s reconsideration of federalism doctrine, says the New York Times. In its first federalism decision since John G. Roberts Jr. became chief justice, the court said Congress acted within its constitutional authority when it stripped states of immunity from some suits for damages by disabled prison inmates. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a unanimous court that to the extent that the inmate’s claims indicated that prison officials had violated not only the statute but the Constitution itself, the suit could proceed. Inmate Tony Goodman says prison officials have grossly neglected his needs for mobility and personal hygiene, and that his dependence on a wheelchair has excluded him from the law library and recreation.
Times says the brief Scalia opinion papered over deep divisions on the court during years of contention over the boundaries between federal authority and state prerogatives. Two years ago the court split 5 to 4 in permitting a lawsuit against Tennessee under Title II of the disabilities act for the state’s failure to make county courthouses accessible to people with disabilities. After yesterday’s ruling, “the federalism revolution is on hold, at least for a few months,” said Gene Schaerr, who argued for state immunity in the Georgia case on behalf of a group of other states. He suggested that the imminent departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been at the center of the federalism debates, might have prompted the court to decide the new case promptly and narrowly, and to defer the hard questions.