Supreme Court justices held a spirited debate about golf, baseball and a key disability-rights law Wednesday in considering whether disabled golfer Casey Martin has a legal right to use a cart between shots at PGA Tour events. The PGA Tour’s lawyer argued that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act does not require the tour to waive its requirement that players walk the course during tournaments. But Martin’s lawyer, Roy L. Reardon, contended walking is not fundamental to the game of golf, unlike the size of the hole or where a player hits the ball. “He plays every single rule of the game” even with a golf cart, Reardon said. Judge Antonin Scalia suggested Reardon’s argument only demonstrates “that you can play the game under a different rule.” “Is it fundamental to baseball that the strike zone be from the chest to the knees?” Scalia asked.
“It could be from the eyes to the hips, couldn’t it? … All sports rules are silly rules, aren’t they?” The PGA Tour’s lawyer, H. Bartow Farr III, said golf is “nothing more or less than a competition that tests excellence in performing what the rules require.” Allowing Martin to use a golf cart would fundamentally alter the nature of the competition, which the PGA is not obligated to do under the ADA, Farr said. Reardon contended walking was not a fundamental rule and that the ADA gave people “like Casey Martin a chance to get to the game.” After Wednesday’s argument, the justices are expected to issue a ruling by July that could clarify the ADA’s scope. The 1990 law, perhaps best known for requiring wheelchair ramps in buildings across the country, bans discrimination against the disabled in housing, employment and public accommodations. Public accommodations include golf courses, places of exercise and “any place of exhibition or entertainment.”
The law requires “reasonable modifications” for disabled people unless such changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the place or event. Martin, 28, has a circulatory disorder in his right leg that makes it painful for him to walk long distances.
The disorder is called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. Martin sued the PGA Tour in 1997, saying the ADA gave him a right to use a cart during tour events. The tour argued that it had the right to set uniform rules for its tournaments. A federal judge ruled for Martin, saying that allowing him to use a cart would not fundamentally alter tour events because he would suffer more fatigue than other golfers even if he used a cart. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in March 2000, saying that using a cart would not give Martin an unfair advantage over his competitors. But the following day, a Chicago-based federal appeals court ruled against Indiana golfer Ford Olinger, who sued the USGA for the right to use a cart during U.S. Open qualifying. The appeals court decided a cart would change the nature of competition. The PGA Tour’s appeal to the Supreme Court is being supported by the USGA in a friend-of-the-court brief. Also backing the tour are the LPGA and the men’s pro tennis organization, the ATP Tour. Martin is being supported by a number of disability-rights groups including the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and the National Federation of the Blind.