Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could have a significant impact on the manner in which states, including Utah, operate their prison systems. The case, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections vs. Yeskey, presents a simple issue: Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to state prisoners?

Federal courts have split in answering that question. Determining whether the ADA applies to prisons is important, especially in view of the ever increasing number of inmates, many of whom have such ADA-covered disabilities as HIV infection and AIDS, learning disabilities, mental retardation, psychological disorders, drug addiction and alcoholism.In the Yeskey case, Pennsylvania prison officials denied prisoner Ronald Yeskey admission into Pennsylvania's "motivational boot camp" program, which requires inmates to participate in strenuous physical activity, because of Yeskey's history of hypertension. Yeskey sued, claiming that he was discriminated against because of his disability. A U.S. District Court in Philadelphia threw out the case, but Yeskey won his appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Two months later, the 4th Circuit came out the other way in a case called Amos vs. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. In the Amos case, 13 disabled Maryland prisoners, many of them in wheelchairs, claimed that Maryland had discriminated against them because of their disabilities.

Appeals courts in Chicago and San Francisco have sided with the 3rd Circuit. The 10th Circuit, the court that hears appeals of federal cases filed in Utah, has sided with the 4th Circuit.

The disagreement between the various federal courts can be traced to the broad, non-specific language of the ADA. The ADA prohibits "public entities" from discriminating against people with disabilities. The statute broadly defines "public entities" to include "any state or local government" and "any department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a state or local government." The statute also requires that public entities make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled people. In Yeskey, the 3rd Circuit interpreted this statutory language literally and determined that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, an agency of the state, was covered by the ADA.

There are formidable practical objections, however, to burdening prisons with having to comply with the requirements of the ADA (and its onerous implementing regulations). The propensity of prisoners to sue at the drop of a hat is legendary and prison systems are already strapped for funds. Numerous outlandish ADA-based claims have already been filed by prisoners: An inmate in Florida with arthritis has claimed the right to a touch-sensitive typewriter; an inmate in Massachusetts with an alleged sleeping disorder has claimed the right to a single cell. It is obvious that the cost of operating a prison system - over $150 million in Utah in 1997 - and the corresponding burden on taxpayers, will increase significantly if the ADA is applied to state prisons.

Legal objections exist as well. The stated purpose of the ADA is to mainstream disabled people into society. Could Congress really have intended disabled prisoners to be "mainstreamed" into an already highly restricted prison society?

Even if Congress intended for the ADA to apply to state prisons, it is far from certain that Congress has the constitutional authority to do so. State prison administration is in no sense commercial, so the Constitution's Commerce Clause does not provide Congress with the authority to regulate the states in this manner. In short, operating state prisons is a core state - not federal - function.

Not surprisingly, the states have weighed in on the issue. Utah Attorney General Jan Graham has joined with 35 other state attorneys general in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Yeskey case. The brief emphasizes the severe impact that applying the ADA to state prisons would have on the states, argues that application of the ADA would undermine the states' ability to manage inmates and allocate limited resources and urges the Supreme Court to rule in Pennsylvania's favor.

In contrast, the Justice Department (DOJ), led by Civil Rights chief Bill Lann Lee, has turned a blind eye to the concerns of the states. In its own friend-of-the-court brief, DOJ totally ignores the wide-ranging consequences that application of the ADA to state prisons would have on the states and the troubling constitutional issues that application would raise. Instead, DOJ strongly argues that disabled prisoners be permitted to sue state prison officials under the ADA. (It is small wonder, given the position of Lee's office, that Sen. Orrin Hatch opposed his nomination.) The correct answer is plain. Let's hope the Supreme Court gets it right.