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ADA Goes to the Movies

The Justice Department's civil rights office sues the company that brought stadium seating to movie theaters.

11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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And how come, for that matter, if John Scott Russell's "Treatise" is such an obvious, clarifying guide to the ADA, Judge Cooper herself is unwilling to spell out the details? In a footnote to her opinion, Cooper reveals that during oral argument AMC asked for "as much guidance as possible on this issue." The judge's answer to this plea: "The Court does not today promulgate any hard-and-fast rules."

Crowing about his victory, Ralph F. Boyd Jr.--John Ashcroft's Bill Lann Lee--said, "This court decision ensures that people with disabilities will have a movie-going experience that is comparable to that of other patrons."

But to a large extent, that was already true: Then, as now, if handicapped people were uncomfortable at one of AMC's theaters, they could simply have gone someplace else. There are 28 other movie theaters within 15 miles of the Mission Valley 20; 53 other theaters within 15 miles of the Promenade 16; 58 other theaters within 15 miles of the Fullerton 20; and 72 other theaters within 15-miles of the Norwalk 20. Many other non-handicapped people--who have long legs or an affinity for clean bathrooms--choose the theater that best suits their needs. In these four instances, there's no reason that people in wheelchairs couldn't have done the same.

AMC IS APPEALING Cooper's ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but given the nuttiness of that particular appellate court, the company may very well lose. That would create a conflict in the circuits, since the 5th Circuit has already decided a similar case in favor of the theater owners. If so, USA v. AMC could wind up before the Supreme Court.

The Catch-22 AMC finds itself in is commonplace, but infuriating. They ask for guidance from the government and are given none; they hold to the letter of the law, and are told that they should have divined its spirit.

What makes this case different, though, is that AMC is now being charged with an ADA violation for a design innovation that has actually dramatically improved the disabled patron's moviegoing experience. Stadium seating wasn't perfect at first. But AMC has since perfected it. If you're confined to a wheelchair and you go to a stadium-seat theater built after 1997, your experience will be markedly better than it would have been any time before 1994. Indeed, you'll have the best seats in the house. And for that, you have AMC to thank.

ADA had nothing to do with this advance. But the people who brought us its benefits are being punished for their ingenuity, and ADA has everything to do with that.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.