Golf In The Supreme Court

Oct 26, 2014

Not sure how I stumbled across this, but yesterday I read a 2001 Supreme Court case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the PGA Tour. A disabled golfer Casey Martin requires a cart to transit between holes, but that is against PGA regulations stating he must walk. Should Martin be protected under ADA and allowed to use a cart in competition?

Disclaimer: I have no background in law or the ADA, this post is simply me trying to engage with the case.

ADA contains three titles. The first covers employment discrimination, the second discrimination by the goverment, and the third activities in “places of public accommodations”, which specifically names golf courses. This appeal is for whether Martin is protected under Title III.

While the PGA argued that its competitor-only areas should not be classified as a public accomodation, the opinion of lower courts decided otherwise:

The operator of a public accommodation could not “create private enclaves within the facility … and thus relegate the ADA to hop-scotch areas. […] the fact that users of a facility are highly selected does not mean that the facility cannot be a public accommodation.

The PGA did not contest that classification, but still argue Title III was inapplicable. One of the main issues of contention is whether Martin should be considered an employee when competing in a professional golfing tournament. If true, a lower court had already found he had no claim under Title I employment discrimination as he was an independent contractor. If Martin is instead “enjoying a public accommodation” rather than working, he would be covered by 42 U.S. Code § 12182 (a):

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.

The majority opinion decided that since the particular competition in question (Q-School) was open to the public for a $3,000 entry fee, this was fairly a privilege per the above quoted statute. In dissent, Justice Scalia disagreed:

That seems to me quite incredible. The PGA Tour is a professional sporting event, staged for the entertainment of a live and TV audience, the receipts from whom (the TV audience’s admission price is paid by advertisers) pay the expenses of the tour, including the cash prizes for the winning golfers. The professional golfers on the tour are no more “enjoying” (the statutory term) the entertainment that the tour provides, or the facilities of the golf courses on which it is held, than professional baseball players “enjoy” the baseball games in which they play or the facilities of Yankee Stadium.

Both amateurs and professionals compete in Q-School. For assessing enjoyment of privilege it seems relevant which category Martin falls into. It would appear the latter:

As a professional, Martin qualified for the NIKE Tour in 1998 and 1999, and based on his 1999 performance, qualified for the PGA Tour in 2000. In the 1999 season, he entered 24 events, made the cut 13 times, and had 6 top-10 finishes, coming in second twice and third once.

Indeed, he made a tidy couple of hundred thousand dollars in those years. Title I employment discrimination seems the appropriate statute to apply here.

Aside from the employment question, I find the remainder of the majority opinion convincing. Scalia’s dissent mostly reads to me as weak rhetoric.

For example, he dismisses out-of-hand the analogy to racial discrimination cases under Title II made by the majority, where as I find it appropriate background. Checking that a finding would be consistent with the overall goals of a statute is responsible, even if the exact letter is not applicable.

Scalia also argues that the court has no business in the rules of golf as set by the PGA:

If a shoe store wishes to sell shoes only in pairs it may; and if a golf tour (or a golf course) wishes to provide only walkaround golf, it may.

And if it wants to provide “white only” golf, it can do that too? I’m not sure what this analogy was trying to achieve. The act allows exemptions if providing for a disability would “fundamentally alter the nature” of the activity, and I don’t see how the court can get out of the business of having to make judgement calls on whether that exemption applies to various rules.

I feel like the intent of ADA was to cover cases like this, particularly given golf’s checkered discrimination history1. But I don’t find the rationale for Title III “public enjoyment” coverage convincing. Martin was clearly making a living from playing golf. Is this then a failure of legislation? How would you anticipate or amend it though?

It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary; but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.2

In this case, a weak argument in favour of the spirit of the ADA is probably the best outcome.

  1. See a couple of cases from the late sixties about whether the defendents should be required to “permit Negroes to play golf on a commercial course”. Just this week, the President of the PGA was fired for a sexist comment.

  2. Learned Hand in Cabell v. Markham, 148 F. 2d 737 (1945)