Sitting in the Rose Garden on July 26, 1990, President G.W.Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and, no doubt intending the historical analogy, declared it "the emancipation proclamation" for those with disabilities. To commemorate the ADA’s 20th Anniversary, I am going to re-read my favorite ADA case, the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Casey Martin, for at least the 20th time. You don’t have to be a golf or ADA fanatic to appreciate the richness of this opinion.
The issue is stated simply: Due to a serious medical condition, PGA Tour Member Casey Martin needed to use a golf cart when competing, but PGA rules prohibited him from doing so. Martin claimed the PGA’s rule violated Title II of the ADA, which prohibits disability discrimination in public accommodations….and won.
The Martin decision is special for so many reasons. What an incredible human interest story! Casey Martin had won 17 Oregon Golf Association junior events before he was 15 years old; was the Oregon state champ when a high school senior; was on the Stanford University golf team when it won the NCAA championship; and survived the grueling physical and mental tests to become a member of the PGA Tour. He did all of this despite having since birth, a degenerative circulatory disorder that obstructs blood flow from his right leg to his heart, which has atrophied his right leg. Walking when playing caused him pain, fatigue and anxiety, and created a significant risk of hemorrhaging, developing blood clots, and fracturing his tibia so badly that an amputation might be required. How can you not root for this guy?
It pits the very old against the very new, the golf traditions going back hundreds of years, beginning with the "Rules of Golf," first adopted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Scotland in 1744, against modern-day notions of equality as encompassed in the ADA, enacted some 250 years after the Rules of Golf.
It has celebrity appearances. Golf gods Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Ken Venturi each testified that fatigue can be a critical factor in a tournament, especially on the last day, and that a competitor using a cart might have an advantage over walkers.
It refers to a rich variety of other celebrities, and what a collection it is: the New York Yankees, the American League, the designated hitter, Mary Queen of Scots, the Sopranos, Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron, Kafka, Alice in Wonderland, Tiger Woods, Plato, John Q. Public, and George Orwell are all mentioned in the decision. Imagine a dinner party with that guest list!
It has irony. If riding a cart creates such a competitive advantage, why do most senior tour members, who have the option to ride, walk?
It raises legal-philosophical issues to ponder: Must a shoe store sell a single shoe to a one-legged person, or can the store insist that the buyer purchase a pair of shoes?
It’s disheartening. The decision cites the testimony of a physiology professor and expert on fatigue who determined that a golfer expends only about 500 calories walking an 18 hole round (about 5 miles), "nutritionally…less than a Big Mac." So much for golf as great exercise.
It has a Solomonic tone. Envision the nine black-robed justices pondering the essence of golf. Justice Souter, in his majority opinion, parses the game and concludes that its essence is shot-making and that walking is neither essential nor indispensable, but merely peripheral, rejecting the PGA’s argument that the walking rule’s purpose is "to inject the element of fatigue into the skill of shot-making."
It has a Scalia dissent and, when it comes to disecting a majority opinion, Justice Scalia has no peers. At the outset, he notes mildly his conclusion: "[T]oday’s opinion exercises a benevolent compassion that the law does not place it within our power to impose." In short order, after a delightful romp through law and logic, he reaches this sarcastic crescendo:
"If one assumes…that the PGA TOUR has some legal obligation to play classic, Platonic golf—and if one assumes the correctness of all the other wrong turns the Court has made to get to this point—then we Justices must confront what is indeed an awesome responsibility. It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States, laid upon it by Congress in pursuance of the Federal Government’s power "[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,"…to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? The answer, we learn, is yes. The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a "fundamental" aspect of golf." For lovers of sarcasm as a rhetorical device, it sends shivers down your spine.
That is why PGA Tour v. Martin is my favorite ADA case of all time. And I commend it to you. Happy 20th to the ADA!