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A Gain, and a Loss, for Civil Rights

Supreme Court decisions yesterday yielded mixed results for the cause of justice. By a decisive 7-to-2 vote the justices ruled that Casey Martin, the disabled professional golfer, has a legal right under the Americans With Disabilities Act to ride in a golf cart rather than walk the course during P.G.A. Tour events -- thus ending a four-year dispute that has provoked intense debate among golfers and non- golfers alike. Unfortunately, that enlightened ruling was offset when the court, by a closer, 5-to-4 margin, made it substantially harder for plaintiffs who bring successful lawsuits to enforce civil rights and environmental laws to obtain reimbursement for their legal fees.

The Casey Martin issue turned on provisions of the disabilities act requiring those operating public facilities such as golf courses to make "reasonable modifications" for people with disabilities unless those modifications would "fundamentally alter the nature" of the activity. Writing for a majority that included Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an ardent golfer who shot a hole in one last December, Justice John Paul Stevens delivered a sound decision that comports both with golf history and the disabilities law's purpose in combating arbitrary rules that needlessly isolate disabled people.

"From early on," Justice Stevens observed, "the essence of the game has been shot-making." The rule that golfers must walk, which applies only at top-level tournaments, is "at best peripheral" and "not an indispensable feature" of the game at any level, he wrote. Justice Antonin Scalia's sarcastic dissent likening the majority's ruling to giving a child with attention deficit disorder four strikes in a Little League game was more revealing of his own hostility to the disabilities act than of flaws in the majority's reasoning.

The second case raised the far-reaching issue of when successful plaintiffs in civil rights and environmental cases are entitled to reimbursement of their legal fees from defendants. In holding that dozens of federal laws providing for such "fee- shifting" do not apply in the absence of an actual courtroom victory or court-approved settlement, the opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the notion that plaintiffs are entitled to fees if their litigation served as a "catalyst" for a change in policy. In the process, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg aptly noted in her dissent, the court dealt a severe blow to the ability of individuals whose federal rights are being violated to find counsel to handle their cases. That is the opposite of the result Congress intended, and potentially an enormous loss for the public interest.

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