State prison inmates are protected by a federal law that bans discrimination against the disabled, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The law applies to any state or local government agency and does not exclude prisons, the court said. The unanimous ruling lets a former Pennsylvania prisoner sue over his exclusion from a boot camp program that could have shortened his sentence."State prisons fall squarely within the statutory definition of public entity," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.
The court rejected Pennsylvania's argument that prisons do not necessarily offer the types of programs addressed by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"Modern prisons provide inmates with many recreational activities, medical services and educational and vocational programs," Scalia said. "The text of the ADA provides no basis for distinguishing these programs, services and activities from those provided by public entities that are not prisons."
The ruling upholds a federal appeals court decision that let Ronald Yeskey sue Pennsylvania prison authorities over their refusal to enroll him in a boot camp program.
The Clinton administration supported Yeskey's argument that state inmates are protected by the 1990 ADA, the federal law that has led to many aids for the disabled such as wheelchair ramps in public places.
In other decisions, the court:
- Dealt a severe blow to a multistate program that provides some $100 million a year for legal help for the poor. The justices, by a 5-4 vote, ruled in a Texas case that the interest earned from short-term trust accounts lawyers hold for their clients are the private property of those clients.
- Ruled that it has the authority to review some lower court decisions that deny inmates the right to appeal their convictions. Ruling 5-4 in the case of a Nebraska man convicted under an anti-gun law, the high court said a 1996 federal law does not strip it of authority to hear some appeals.
- Voted 6-3 that people can be found guilty of "willfully" selling guns without a license even if there's no proof they knew about the licensing requirement. The Supreme Court upholding a New York man's federal conviction, said one provision of the federal Firearms Owners Protection Act requires prosecutors to prove only that defendants knew they were selling guns illegally.
- Ruled unanimously that people seeking Social Security disability benefits can seek immediate help from a federal appeals court when a trial judge sends their case back to a federal agency for more study. The court said an Oregon woman can appeal a judge's decision that revived her claim for benefits but did not grant the benefits outright as she requested.
- Threw out a $1 million damage award AT&T had been ordered to pay a customer. It said phone companies whose rates are federally regulated cannot be sued under state laws governing business contracts.