The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a case that could block the millions of disabled Americans who use state accommodations from suing over such complaints as inaccessible polling places or hard-to-use public transportation.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act forbids discrimination against the disabled and requires governments to provide "services, programs or activities" to those with special needs.
The high court has narrowed the scope of the law repeatedly and could use a mentally ill California doctor's case to dramatically limit lawsuits under it.
Last year, the court ruled that state workers cannot use the ADA to win damages for on-the-job discrimination. California asks the court to go much further and shield states from lawsuits filed by the disabled over accommodations.
The state was sued by Dr. Michael Hason after the California Medical Board turned him down for a license because he suffers from clinical depression. He argued that the licensing board should have accommodated his disability by offering him a probationary license that required him to get psychotherapy or other help.
The high court heard four cases in its last term involving the disabilities law, and all four rulings went against the disabled. Justices probably will consider the latest case early next year.
"The stakes are very, very high," said Ruth Colker, a constitutional law professor at the University of Ohio, who specializes in disability discrimination.
The ruling will affect millions of disabled who use services such as state health centers and public transportation, as well as disabled prisoners, some people in nursing homes and students at state universities, she said.
Joel Davis, a deputy attorney general in California, said states have a right to determine qualified doctors without federal interference.
"The very purpose of California's Medical Board is to protect the public, not to provide a "service' for the benefit of applicants," Davis wrote in court filings.
Around the country, state medical boards and lawyer associations under threat of lawsuits have provided alternatives to people with disabilities. For example, disabled students may be given extra time to pass board exams.
At issue is whether states have constitutional protection from the suits.
Also Monday . . .
Among actions Monday, the Supreme Court:
+ Agreed to consider when death row inmates with bad lawyers deserve a second chance.
+ Agreed to decide whether certain advocacy groups can contribute to candidates' campaigns. Only people, political action committees, political parties and campaign committees can give to candidates now.
+ Upheld a lower court decision that Cleveland lawyer Peter Kirsanow could join the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
+ Rejected an appeal from a California inmate who wanted to ship his sperm to his wife for artificial insemination.
+ Refused to block a suit accusing the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office of wrongly removing the corneas of dead children without first getting permission.
+ Turned aside an appeal from Playgirl magazine, which tried to stop a trial on the claims by actor Jose Solano that the publication insinuated he posed nude.