10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Olmstead v. L.C., 1999

Lois Curtis and Barack Obama
Lois Curtis (center), one of the plaintiffs in the Olmstead v. L.C. Supreme Court case, presented President Barack Obama with a self-portrait she did of herself when she was a child. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In the late '90s, two women with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. Elaine Wilson had been diagnosed with a personality disorder while Lois Curtis was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Once they'd both completed treatment, the women were deemed ready for a move to a community-based program. But the move never happened: Wilson and Curtis were kept confined in the institution for several years after completing treatment, and eventually Curtis sued the state (under the name of Tommy Olmstead, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources) [sources: LII, OlmsteadRights].

The plaintiffs argued that the hospital was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Title II of the ADA "protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by State and local government entities." In its defense, the state of Georgia argued that it had been inadequate funding that kept them from moving the women into appropriate program, not discrimination [source: ADA, LII].

Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the court, siding with the plaintiffs, and stating that under Title II of the ADA, "States are required to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when the State's treatment professionals determine that such placement is appropriate, the affected persons do not oppose such treatment, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities" [source: LLI].

The landmark decision meant "that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when such services are appropriate; the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and community-based services can be reasonably accommodated" [source: ADA].