Wednesday, January 8, 2020
The Eleventh Circuit ruled in National Association of the Deaf v. Florida that Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity in enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act, insofar as it requires the state to provide captioning for live and archived videos of Florida legislative proceedings. The ruling means that the plaintiffs' case can move forward on the merits.
The case arose when plaintiffs challenged the Florida legislature's practice of live-streaming and archiving videos of legislative sessions without captioning. The plaintiffs argued that this violated Title II of the ADA and the Rehab Act (more on that below). The state moved to dismiss, arguing that it was immune under the Eleventh Amendment and that Congress did not validly abrogate immunity in enacting the ADA.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed. The court ruled that Congress, in enacting the ADA, sought to protect the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process, and that the state denied that very right to the plaintiffs:
Here, deaf citizens are being denied the opportunity to monitor the legislative actions of their representatives because Defendants have refused to provide captioning for legislative proceedings. Without access to information about the legislative actions of their representatives, deaf citizens cannot adequately "petition the Government for a redress of greivances," because they cannot get the information necessary to hold their elected officials accountable for legislative acts. This type of participation in the political process goes to the very core of the political system embodied in our Constitution.
The court went on to say that Congress also validly abrogated immunity even if only a non-fundamental right were at stake.
The court said that Congress enacted Title II against a backdrop of a "pattern of unequal treatment in the administration of a wide range of public services, programs, and activities," and that Title II was an "appropriate response" to this pattern:
The burden of adding captioning to legislative videos--which are already provided to the public--removes a complete barrier to this information for a subset of citizens with a remedy we expect can be accomplished with limited cost and effort. In this way, the remedy is a proportionate and "reasonable modification" of a service that is already provided, and it does not change the "nature" of the service whatsoever. Finally, if the cost or effort should prove to be prohibitively burdensome, the Defendants have available the affirmative defenses in Title II.
The court also held that the plaintiffs could pursue injunctive relief under Ex Parte Young for the ongoing violation of Title II. Finally, it remanded for further proceedings on whether state legislative defendants received federal financial funds, and were therefore on the hook for Rehab Act violations (as a federal conditioned spending program--federal funds in exchange for a state's agreement not to discriminate by disability).