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Roberts on Rights of Disabled

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Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Kim Moody (e-mail: kim@drcme.org) is the executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Maine.

The nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court poses serious threats to Americans with disabilities.

If confirmed to this lifetime post, he could make decisions that affect our lives for decades to come.

That's why it is critically important that during the course of the Senate Judiciary hearings that commenced this week, the senators ask - and demand the answers to - critical questions regarding Roberts' philosophy of the constitutional and civil rights protections for Americans with disabilities.

It is clear that Roberts is respected and well-regarded by decision-makers in Washington, D.C.

However, what's most important to the lives of all Americans, and particularly to those of us living with disabilities, is not his demeanor, but whether his judicial philosophy lends him to make decisions that will uphold constitutional and legal protections. Or, conversely, whether he will strive to limit and restrict access to rights that empower people with disabilities in their homes, workplaces and communities.

Unfortunately, throughout the span of Roberts' career in private practice, as special assistant to the attorney general in the Reagan administration, as deputy solicitor general in the Bush administration, and finally his position as appellate judge for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he has repeatedly worked to limit protections for those with disabilities.

As executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Maine - the state's protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities - I am concerned about Roberts' record of hostility towards disability rights, including working to narrow the protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 2002, Roberts successfully argued the case, Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, in front of the Supreme Court. In that case, a woman who had developed severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis from working on the assembly line at the auto manufacturing plant could not prevail in a suit against her employer for failing to accommodate her disability.

Roberts won the case by arguing that she did not have a disability because she was not sufficiently limited in other daily activities outside of her job.

During his work in the Bush and Reagan administrations - posts in which his views are expressly or presumptively his own and during which time he strove to advance a political direction within the administrations - Roberts has repeatedly worked to limit federal laws that protect students with disabilities.

During his tenure with the Reagan administration regarding Board of Education v. Rowley, Roberts criticized a lower court's decision to provide an 8-year-old deaf girl with a sign-language interpreter at her school.

Roberts also supported a proposal that Title IX should only cover a specific program, such as a school admissions office, rather than an entire school or educational institution. This view ultimately succeeded in the Supreme Court in Grove City v. Bell, effectively enabling schools and universities to avoid complying with Title IX's prohibition against sex discrimination in programs like athletics.

It also applied equally to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which forbids discrimination based on disability by entities receiving federal funds. Thankfully, Congress later expressly addressed and overturned this ruling by passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act. While the various legislative proposals were pending, Roberts went so far as to state that the act, which passed by broad majorities, would "radically expand the civil rights laws to areas of private conduct never before considered covered."

Had his view prevailed, the antidiscrimination tenants of Section 504, Title VI and Title IX would apply to far fewer entities, and help the lives of far fewer individuals with disabilities.

This record is very troubling and must surface for interpretation and discussion as the hearings go forward. The silence on his record on disabilities has been extremely concerning. That is why I oppose the nomination of Roberts as chief justice. This position is too important, and the stakes are too high, for any nominee to be given a pass. It is extremely important for senators to conduct a slow and thorough review of Roberts and demand that he be open and honest about his views on disability rights.

And it is the job of the Senate to confirm only those judges who demonstrate a willingness to uphold Americans' rights and legal protections. So far, this has not been demonstrated.

Special to the Press Herald

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