Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has vigorously fought disability suits against Texas as attorney general, despite being in a wheelchair himself and benefiting from the 1990 federal law that helps guarantee access for disabled people, a newspaper reported Sunday.
Abbott has been in a wheelchair for almost 30 years after a tree fell on him while he was jogging. The attorney general has praised the American with Disabilities Act, which has helped provide ramps, wide doors and other accommodations that allow him to engage voters, the Dallas Morning News reported.
However, Abbott believes it is unconstitutional to force Texas to comply with the federal law. So, his office has battled several suits filed by disabled residents, including one in which Texas argues a woman is not disabled because she has a prosthetic leg.
"It's the attorney general's duty to zealously represent the interests of the state of Texas, and in these cases that meant raising all applicable legal arguments in litigation where Texas was sued in court," Abbott's spokesman, Jerry Strickland, told the newspaper.
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Among the lawsuits Abbott's office has fought are: A blind professor wanted reflective tape placed on the stairs leading to her office; two deaf defendants who requested a sign language interpreter in a Laredo courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg that the state said wasn't disabled because of her prosthetic limb.
Often, the state has lost its cases, including before the Texas Supreme Court, which is considered to be a conservative legal body.
By arguing that disabled Texans don't have the right to sue the state for discrimination, Abbott's office has denied these people federal protections, advocates for the disabled say.
Abbott also has used the sovereign immunity argument, under which a state can't be used without consenting to it, to halt cases until a court decides whether immunity applies. Federal courts have said several times sovereign immunity doesn't apply to cases under the American with Disabilities Act.
"The law is the law is the law," said James Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit group that has fought the state on several sovereign immunity claims in disability cases and won. "And the law is not ambiguous."
Abbott declined to answer the newspaper's questions on the issue. But Strickland said the immunity issue is complex and each case is unique. In 2006, he pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court urged lower courts to review each case separately.
Yet when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed Abbott to the Texas Supreme Court in 1995, the state quickly settled a lawsuit over whether the courthouse had to be accessible for the disabled. Ramps were installed and other changes were made before Abbott took the bench.
At that time, Abbott called it "ironic" that the state Supreme Court, "the gatekeeper of the law," had to be sued to comply.