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Supreme Court considers allowing lawsuits by state inmates

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- The Supreme Court considered Wednesday whether states can be forced to pay damages for not accommodating disabled prisoners, a states rights case that might turn on the vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's successor.

O'Connor was the deciding vote the last time justices ruled on the scope of a federal law that protects people with disabilities. Another split vote would likely force the justices to delay a ruling in this case until next year, after O'Connor's retirement.

Justices heard an appeal from a 41-year-old Georgia inmate, Tony Goodman, who claims that he was kept for more than 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow he could not turn his wheelchair, and that he suffered serious injuries trying to hoist himself from his wheelchair onto the toilet.

"Damages are clearly an appropriate remedy" in such cases, justices were told by Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer.

Clement is defending the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a law meant to ensure equal treatment for the disabled in most walks of life. Although the court has already ruled that people in state prisons are protected by the law, this follow-up case asks whether prisoners can use the law to sue for damages.

O'Connor was the key fifth vote in a ruling last year that said states could be sued under the law for not providing the disabled with access to courts.

She seemed less sure about allowing prison accommodation suits. "That's very different from court access," she told Clement.

She has been a swing vote in disputes that pit states' rights against federal power.

A second argument might be necessary if O'Connor is the deciding vote in the Georgia case. The ruling will likely take months to prepare, and O'Connor's vote does not count if she is no longer on the court when the decision is released.

Senate hearings are scheduled in January for Samuel Alito, the appeals court judge nominated to replace her.

Lawyers for Georgia told justices that states should not be forced to defend themselves in court against lawsuits claiming that disabled inmates were barred from television lounges and other recreational opportunities.

Georgia prison officials have maintained that Goodman is not as injured as he claims.

He is serving a 15-year sentence for a 1995 cocaine conviction and an aggravated assault that occurred three years after he injured his spine in a car accident. In court documents, Goodman is described as paraplegic.

The cases are United States v. Georgia, 04-1203, and Goodman v. Georgia, 04-1236.

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