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Court to Hear Discrimination Case

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, taking up an appeal from the California Medical Board, agreed Monday to decide whether state agencies are shielded from being sued under the federal law that bars discrimination against people with disabilities.

Since 1996, the high court has handed down a series of rulings that say the states as “sovereign entities” cannot be sued under various federal antidiscrimination laws.

Two years ago, the court, by a 5-4 vote, said disabled workers cannot sue the states that employ them under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The new case tests whether that same rule of immunity applies when the state is accused of discriminating against the disabled in providing public services.

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In the past, federal antidiscrimination laws have forced state colleges, libraries, courts and other public entities to make their buildings accessible to those in wheelchairs.

But the justices took up a rather unusual claim to resolve the broad issue of a state’s immunity from being sued.

Dr. Michael J. Hason was turned down for a medical license by the California Medical Board in 1995 on the grounds that he was mentally ill and had a history of severe depression and drug dependency.

Hason sued the board on his own behalf, alleging that he was a victim of discrimination because of his mental illness.

The state’s lawyers said the suit should be thrown out because it did not provide a general public service, akin to a library. Moreover, the state had a “sovereign immunity” from such suits, they said.

“This involves the right and duty of the state to regulate the licensing of physicians for the public safety,” said Joel A. Davis, a deputy state attorney general in Los Angeles. “The federal courts should not be deciding who becomes a doctor or a surgeon.”

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to dismiss the lawsuit. In the end, Hason may not be able to show he was a “qualified individual with a disability” who suffered unfair discrimination, the appeals court said. But the state is not immune from all such suits, it concluded.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer appealed to the Supreme Court.

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In taking the case, the justices said they would not focus on the special status of the state medical board, but instead would decide the broad question of whether all state agencies are shielded from being sued by disabled persons who say they were denied fair treatment or equal benefits in the “services, programs or activities” of a state agency.

This case does not affect local governments or school districts, however. The doctrine of “state sovereign immunity” shields agencies that are part of state government, but not county or municipal governments.

The case of California Medical Board vs. Hason is due to be argued early next year.

In other cases:

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Campaign contributions: The court said it would decide whether nonprofit advocacy groups that are incorporated have a free-speech right to contribute to the campaign of federal office seekers.

In this case, the Bush administration finds itself in the awkward spot of challenging North Carolina Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

Since 1907, federal law has barred corporations from funding campaigns. Federal Elections Commission regulations make no exception for nonprofit groups that are incorporated.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., sided with the antiabortion group, which challenged the restriction as unconstitutional.

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Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, representing the government and the election commission, urged the high court to uphold the existing law (FEC vs. Beaumont). This dispute, however, predates the pending challenge to the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which may reach the court early next year.

Bad lawyering: In a Maryland case, the court agreed to decide whether a defense lawyer’s failure to investigate his client’s case calls for overturning a conviction and death sentence.

The justices have been split on what to do about bad lawyers whose errors can doom their clients to death. This case, Wiggins vs. Corcoran, calls for setting a clear rule.

Corneas: The court refused to block a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County coroner’s office for having removed the corneas of children without obtaining their parents’ permission.

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An earlier state law had allowed this practice when no objection was raised. A new law requires consent in advance.


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