Fearing that it could open the door for a conservative US Supreme Court to reverse the rights of the disabled, advocates nationwide are pleading with Washington Governor Chris Gregoire not to appeal a 9th Circuit decision instructing the state to fully restore in-home care to 12 senior and disabled plaintiffs.
Ruling in M.R. v. Dreyfus, a 9th Circuit panel determined that across the board state budget cuts that reduced in-home care hours by 10 percent violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by threatening to force the 12 plaintiffs into institutionalized care. Under the landmark 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, a 6-3 majority of the US Supreme Court ruled that the ADA requires states to administer services in the "most integrated setting" that meets the individual's needs. Considered by some to be the Brown v. Board of Education for people with disabilities, it was Olmstead that made it possible for millions of disabled Americans to stay in their own homes and communities rather than being institutionalized.
The state has a September 17 deadline to file an appeal (it has asked for an extension to October 1), and Gregoire has clearly signaled her intention to do so, prompting great concern within the disability community that an activist court might seize the case as an opportunity to role back protections.
In an August 29 letter (pdf), two dozen organizations warn Gregoire that filing an appeal "could place at risk one of the most fundamental civil rights of individuals with disabilities, the right to avoid needless institutionalization":
Even if Washington’s petition to the Supreme Court were narrowly drawn, it could, if granted, open the door to Supreme Court review and revision of the entire Olmstead decision. In recent years, the Supreme Court has become increasingly restrictive in its view of Congressional power to protect the most vulnerable Americans and has repeatedly reached out to decide questions affecting individuals’ rights that it need not have addressed. Seeking certiorari in M.R. v. Dreyfus could result in a ruling that significantly diminishes the right of people with disabilities to live in integrated settings and be full participants in their communities.
The irony is that Gregoire herself has been a strong advocate for disability rights. As Attorney General she reversed the state's position on Olmstead, and sided with people with disabilities. And despite recent budget cuts, Washington remains a leader in providing long term in-home services to seniors and the disabled. So even if the Supreme Court does reverse Olmstead, Washington's disabled will likely remain relatively well cared for.
But in much of the rest of the nation, not so much. Without Olmstead's protections millions of disabled Americans could lose the services they rely on to stay in their homes and their communities. And that's a legacy I'm not sure that Gregoire really wants to leave.
[UPDATE: The state was just granted its extension request. It now has until October 1 to file an appeal.]