Cleveland attorney Bill Brown has told the story probably as often as he rehearsed for the day of which he spoke.
That day was a seminal moment in assuring the rights of disabled Americans to have adequate access to the nation’s court system.
With humor and humility, he once again recounted that moment for the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club Thursday morning.
“The fate of 15 million Americans [is] on your shoulders,” he recalled a constitutional scholar telling him days before he took that argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.
His “odyssey” as he called it began when George Lane came into his office to ask him about the difficulties he had faced as a paraplegic while going through the judicial process in Polk County.
“He was a member of the ‘frequent flyer program’ of the General Sessions Court in Polk County for many years,” Brown said referring to Lane’s constant run-ins with the law.
“He told me one of the reasons he wanted to speak to me about his case was because he liked the way I had prosecuted him,” Brown said. “He said he liked my attitude. I’m not sure exactly what that meant.”
Lane related his story of having to crawl up the stairs of the Polk County Courthouse to appear in a revoked license case. He was later arrested for failure to appear after refusing to crawl a second time.
Brown said the question was not whether “they” could do that to him because “they” had already done that.
“The question is whether they can get away with that,” Brown said he told Lane.
Brown argued the case based on the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring public access be accorded to those with disabilities.
The state of Tennessee fought against Brown saying the requirement to the states violated the 11th Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing sovereign immunity.
“This case took me through every single court in the system,” Brown said. “This was all about whether the state of Tennessee was going to require George Lane to have his proceedings at an accessible courthouse.”
Along the way, he learned of a court reporter in Middle Tennessee who was also a paraplegic.
“She became one of the most popular court reporters in Middle Tennessee. Her only problem was almost all of the courthouses in upper Middle Tennessee were on the second floor of a courthouse that didn’t have an elevator,” Brown said.
He said her practice was to roll into the first floor of courthouses in which she was working and ask someone to carry her up to the courtroom.
“This is a woman who had been recognized nationally as one of the 100 most courageous women in America, and yet she still had to face the ominous task of being carried up steps to get to a courtroom to make her living,” Brown said.
He said his two clients could not have been more different.
“I had George Lane, the incorrigible criminal who always pled guilty and nobody respected. Then I had this gracious, beautiful woman who had incredible courage who was facing the same obstacles,” he said.
Brown noted discrimination can come to anyone because of a circumstance that is beyond their control.
“Who amongst you would not think this was a slam-dunk case?” he asked.
But, after filing suit against the state and 25 counties, it led to the highest court in the land.
“This was totally crazy to me, because the federal statute said sovereign immunity was abrogated and the state of Tennessee wanted to argue this was unconstitutional for Congress to do that and make states have their courthouses accessible,” Brown said.
Preparing for his Supreme Court argument, Brown practiced answering potential questions from the justices with a stellar panel of constitutional experts. The answer he got from them was he was not the one who should argue the case.
“I called my clients, told them what these pre-eminent constitutional lawyers had said, and they unanimously told me, ‘Bill, We don’t want anybody but you to argue our case, because you know our facts. You know the law and you know us and they don’t.’ That put a little wind in my sail,” Brown said.
He remembered seeing his pastor and Sunday School class in line at the Supreme Court building for the session, and that providing him “spiritual support.”
After Brown made his argument, he said the one who told him he was not the one to make the argument hugged him and told him he had done a good job.
The Supreme Court eventually gave its 5-4 ruling in favor of Brown’s argument — a decision that came on the anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
“From there with positive work with the state of Tennessee and 25 counties, Tennessee set a standard by which all people now have access to the courtrooms with an ADA policy,” Brown said.
“Tennessee versus Lane now stands as authority for all states that people with disabilities have a right to access and the states are responsible for making them accessible.”