Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey
Decided on June 15, 1998; 524 US 206


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (prison), 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits a “public entity” from discriminating against a “qualified individual with a disability” on account of that individual’s disability, cover inmates in state prisons?


A. Background:

After being sentenced to 18 to 36 months in prison, Ronald Yeskey (respondent) was recommended as a candidate for a Motivational Boot Camp for first-time offenders. Successful completion of the Boot Camp could have resulted in Yeskey's early parole after just six months. When the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections discovered Yeskey's medical history of hypertension, he was denied admission to the Boot Camp. Yeskey challenged the refusal as discriminatory. He filed suit against petitioners, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and several department officials, alleging that his exclusion from the Boot Camp violated Title II of the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The District Court dismissed his case for failure to state a claim, holding the ADA inapplicable to inmates in state prisons. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling. On appeal, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Donald Specter argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Eve H. Cervantez and Arlene B. Mayerson.
Paul A. Tufano argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Syndi L. Guido.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems et al. by Steven J. Schwartz, James R. Pingeon, and Stephen F. Hanlon; and for the National Prison Project of the ACLU Foundation et al. by Steven R. Shapiro, David M. Porter, Marjorie Rifkin, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Irving L. Gornstein argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. On the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee, Deputy Solicitor General Underwood, Paul R. Q. Wolfson, Jessica Dunsay Silver, Linda F. Thome, and Seth M. Galanter.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Nevada et al. by Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada, and Anne B. Cathcart, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Betty D. Montgomery, Attorney General of Ohio, Jeffrey S. Sutton, State Solicitor, and Elise Porter and Todd R. Marti, Assistant Attorneys General, John M. Ferren, Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia, and Gus F. Diaz, Acting Attorney General of Guam, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: William H. Pryor, Jr., of Alabama, Grant Woods of Arizona, Winston Bryant of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren of California, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Thurbert E. Baker of Georgia, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Alan G. Lance of Idaho, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Philip T. McLaughlin of New Hampshire, Peter Verniero of New Jersey, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jeffrey B. Pine of Rhode Island, Charles Molony Condon of South Carolina, Mark W. Barnett of South Dakota, John Knox Walkup of Tennessee, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, Mark L. Earley of Virginia, Julio A. Brady of the Virgin Islands, and William U. Hill of Wyoming; for the Council of State Governments et al. by Richard Ruda and James I. Crowley; for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation by Kent S. Scheidegger; and for the Republican Caucus of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by John P. Krill, Jr., and David R. Fine.

"Assuming, without deciding, that the plain-statement rule does govern application of the ADA to the administration of state prisons, we think the requirement of the rule is amply met: the statute's language unmistakeably [sic] includes State prisons and prisoners within its coverage...

State prisons fall squarely within the statutory definition of 'public entity,' which includes 'any department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or States or local government...'

We also disagree with petitioners' contention that the term 'qualified individual with a disability' is ambiguous insofar as concerns its application to state prisoners. The statute defines the term to include anyone with a disability 'who, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies, or practices, the removal of architectural, communication, or transportation barriers, or the provision of auxiliary aids and services, meets the essential eligibility requirements for the receipt of services or the participation in programs or activities provided by a public entity.'

Petitioners argue that the words 'eligibility' and 'participation' imply voluntariness on the part of an applicant who seeks a benefit from the State, and thus do not connote prisoners who are being held against their will. This is wrong on two counts: First, because the words do not connote voluntariness... And secondly, even if the words did connote voluntariness, it would still not be true that all prison 'services,' 'programs,' and 'activities' are excluded from the Act because participation in them is not voluntary. The prison law library, for example, is a service (and the use of it an activity), which prisoners are free to take or leave...

Our conclusion that the text of the ADA is not ambiguous causes us also to reject petitioners' appeal to the doctrine of constitutional doubt... Because the plain text of Title II of the ADA unambiguously extends to state prison inmates, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

It is so ordered."

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Scalia, A. Pro (Wrote unanimous opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro
  •  Ginsburg, R. Pro
  •  Stevens, J. Pro
  •  Souter, D. Pro
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro
  •  Thomas, C. Pro
  •  Breyer, S. Pro
  •  O'Connor, S. Pro

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in a 9-0 unanimous vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.