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Supreme Court Ruling May Upend Disability Rights Protections, Advocates Fear

Supreme Court Ruling May Upend Disability Rights Protections, Advocates Fear

Disability advocates are concerned that a U.S. Supreme Court decision diminishing the power of federal agencies could have major implications for disability rights. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Countless federal regulations ensuring the rights of people with disabilities to everything from health care to community living could face legal challenges after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 40-year-old precedent.

In a ruling issued late last month, the high court said that courts should no longer defer to the interpretation of federal agencies in situations where laws are ambiguous.

The decision in the case Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo throws out the court’s 1984 ruling in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which has shaped how federal agencies have gone about their work for decades. Under that approach, the government has relied on its experts at each agency to fill in the details clarifying how various laws should be applied in practice.

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“Chevron is overruled. Courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the majority in the latest ruling. “Courts need not and under the (Administrative Procedures Act) may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.”

Now, advocates fear that the Supreme Court ruling will effectively open the federal rulebook to litigation, a situation that could have massive implications for people with disabilities. It also could make federal agencies far more cautious in how they go about crafting regulations in the future.

“The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loper could be devastating to disabled people,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, who indicated that her group is “deeply concerned that this decision will open the door to an avalanche of lawsuits aimed at gutting federal regulations that safeguard the rights of people with disabilities.”

In practice, federal regulations are central to implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and a myriad of other statutes protecting the rights of people with disabilities, advocates say.

This year alone, the federal government has finalized rules barring disability discrimination in health care, spelling out how the ADA applies online, updating Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid home and community-based services, among other changes.

“The decision could lead to a surge in litigation as industries and other entities challenge existing and new regulations,” said Kim Musheno, vice president of public policy at the Autism Society of America. “This might particularly affect areas where regulations ensure access to health care, public accommodations and other critical services for people with disabilities, potentially undermining decades of progress in disability rights and protections.”

The regulatory process is unique, advocates say, because it relies on subject matter experts and includes a public comment period, ensuring that people with disabilities have an opportunity to speak out about changes that may impact them. Now, with more attention likely to go toward courts, they fear that the voices of those most knowledgeable about rules that are often technical and highly specific may be overlooked.

“For a long time, courts have relied on the expertise of specialized agencies to interpret and implement federal laws and programs, ensuring that the needs and rights of people with disabilities are properly understood and protected,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc. “Without this deference, people with disabilities are subject to potentially less informed and less consistent legal decisions.”

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