Casey Martin Trial and Appeals: 1998-2001

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Casey Martin Trial and Appeals:

Plaintiff: Casey Martin
Defendants: Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Tour
Plaintiff Claim: Violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) by refusing to adapt tournament rules to accommodate his disability
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Trial: William Wiswall, Martha Walters; Supreme Court: Roy L. Reardon
Chief Defense Lawyers: Trial: William Maledon; Supreme Court: H. Bartow Farr Ill
Judge: Trial: Thomas M. Coffin; Final Appeal: U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist presiding
Place: Trial: Eugene, Oregon. Final Appeal: Washington, DC
Dates of Trials: Trial: February 2-10, 1998; Final Appeal: January 17, 2001; Decision: May 29, 2001
Decisions: Trial: Martin's suit upheld; Supreme Court: The PGA's appeal denied

SIGNIFICANCE: In an era when people with physical disabilities of all kinds were gaining access to many areas and activities hitherto closed to them, this was the first case in which an athlete with a disability took legal action to demand a special arrangement so that he could compete with professionals. The issue then became whether professional sports should be allowed to impose and maintain their own requirements and regulations or whether they were to be subject to the same regulations as all public organizations.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Americans came to be increasingly sensitive to the needs of people with physical disabilities of all kinds. This culminated in 1990 with President George Bush's signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against the disabled in housing, employment, and public accommodations. The most tangible results of this law included such things as the installation of ramps and special toilet facilities. Meanwhile, alongside this kind of legal remedy, individuals with physical disabilities had begun on their own to participate in sports of all kinds, so that Americans came to accept marathoners in wheelchairs, blind skiers, and competitors with prosthetic limbs in many sports. None of these disabled individuals, however, attempted to participate in organized professional competitions until 1997, when Casey Martin, a golfer, demanded to be allowed to compete in the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Tour.

The Challenger

Casey Martin was born in 1972 with a congenital defect in his right leg known as the Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. He lacked the vein that runs along the bone in the lower right leg, so that blood must return back to the heart by a jumble of veins near the surface of the leg. This condition degenerated as he grew and made it extremely painful for him to walk; for normal walking he wore an especially strong support stocking to keep the swelling down, but his right leg gradually atrophied. Even so, Martin took up golf and by the time he was at Stanford University, he was good enough to become a teammate of Tiger Woods.

Walking the long distances of a golf course, however, eventually became too painful and by his junior year he took to riding a golf carta common practice of amateur golfers but not accepted in professional competitions (although it is allowed on the PGA's Senior Tour). In November 1997, Martin decided to sue the Professional Golfers' Association Tour, the sponsor and organizer of many of the major big-money golf tournaments in the United States. Martin argued that golf courses are "public accommodations" as defined by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and that the PGA Tour, as a commercial enterprise, must obey all its rules. At once the case caught the public's attention, and this was further enhanced when in January 1998, while awaiting trial, Martin won the Nike Tour's season-opening Lakeland Classic, which allowed him to ride in his golf cart.

After winning this, Martin assumed celebrity status, appearing on televison and signing a generous endorsement contract with Nike. Meanwhile, as the trial approached, the PGA Tour was increasingly made to look like a spoilsport. Senator Tom Harkin and former Senator Robert Dole, who had sponsored the disabilities act of 1990, invited Martin to Congress; editorial pages took positions; sports columnists had a field day; and golfers and fans of every level took sidesthe most notable being Jack Niklaus and Arnold Palmer, who opposed the use of carts. In general, Americans remained equally divided on the subject.

Walking the Course

The trial opened on February 2, 1998, in a packed courtroom of the U.S. District Court of Eugene, Oregon, Martin's hometown. It began with a videotape showing Martin's disfigured leg, undoubtedly a powerful appeal for his case. His lawyer then opened by contending that the PGA had never claimed that "walking is fundamental to the game." The PGA's lawyer denied this, insisting that walking the 20 to 25 miles during a major 72-hole tournament involves a physical exertion that is part of the contest. Martin's lawyers were ready for this and called as witness a physiologist who contended that "because of the low level of activity in golf, it is not especially taxing." He estimated that 18 holes of golf would expend some 500 calories, "Nutritionally less than a Big Mac." Meanwhile, a charge by Martin's lawyer that the PGA Tour banned carts mainly because they do not look good on television was dismissed by the PGA lawyer as "a ludicrous comment!"

When the PGA came to open its defense, it employed videotapes of golf greats Jack Niklaus and Arnold Palmer, both of whom insisted that they were not taking any position against Martin, but rather for the game. "I'm more interested," said Palmer, "in the fact that I've always felt and been taught that golf is a game of stamina." Just as crucial was the testimony of two professional golfers who had themselves played tournaments with physical problems. Ken Venturi had won the U.S. Open in 1974 after walking the last 18 holes while suffering severe heat exhaustion. And Scott Verplank, a diabetic who tired easily, said that he had greatly benefited from riding a cart when it was allowed. The PGA Tour concluded its case by calling in its own commissioner, Tim Finchem, who testified that, "If walking were not an integral part of our competition, we would have found a way toward settlement." As the trial entered its final phase, it was revealed that the PGA Tour's position was being supported by the governing bodies of many of the world's major golf organizations: The United States Golf Association; the Ladies Professional Golf Association; the PGA of America, which oversees the Ryder Cup; Augusta National, which governs the Masters tournament; the PGA European tour; the PGA of South Africa; and the Australasia Tour.

Given such an imposing opposition, it was all the more remarkable, that the presiding judge, Magistrate Thomas M. Coffin, ruled on the last day, February 10, in favor of Martin. "Mr. Marin is entitled to his modification because he is disabled. It will not alter what's taking place out there in the course." But well aware that his decision was not the last word, Judge Coffin went on to say, "The ultimate disposition of this case will have significant impact, not just at the level of professional golf, but also at all levels of athletic competition."

The Next Rounds

After Martin won his suit, the PGA immediately welcomed him into the tour and he continued to use his cart while playing in various matches, including the 1998 U.S. Open. But the issues were by no means resolved and the debate continued in the media, and in May 1998, the PGA announced that it was going to appeal the decision. In May 1999, oral arguments were held before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which announced its decision on March 6, 2000, upholding the lower court's ruling. Once more, the PGA, although realizing that many people would regard it as "picking on" this disabled man, weighed the issues, then on May 31 announced it would appeal this new decision to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in November 1998, Martin had failed to qualify for the PGA Tour for the 1999 seasonthe court's decision had allowed him to ride while competing, but did not relieve him from winning the matches and/or money required to qualify. However, he did continue to play in non-PGA golf matches throughout 1999, and by October 24, 1999, he had won enough money to qualify for the 2000 season.

On September 26, 2000, the PGA passed the next hurdle when the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case. The oral arguments were presented on January 17, 2001 (only three days after Martin signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with Nike). To the court, there were only two main legal issues: Is a golf course when used for a tournament a "place of public accommodation"? Is making an exception to the walking rule the kind of accommodation required by the federal law? The lawyers inevitably argued on more emotional issues. H. Bartow Farr III, arguing on behalf of the PGA,. insisted that the previous judges had failed to recognize that all top-level professional sports, including golf, "are simply tests of excellence, of who can perform the best on a set of physical tasks. Those tasks are defined by the rules of the sport." Martin's lawyer, Roy L. Reardon, countered that "walking is not the game The game is hitting the ball." He pointed out that Martin had earned $143,248 on the PGA Tour in 2000 while never asking, "for any modification of any rule affecting where he hit the ball, how big the hole is, or anything else." To bolster his case, Martin also filed supporting briefs from the Clinton administration and former Senator Robert Dole, himself with a hand and arm disabled in World War II.

There were several light moments during the hearing. At one point, Justice Antonin Scalia said that if some justices knew as little about baseball as they did about golf, "the former would be a much greater sin." When Justice Sandra Day O'Connora golfer who had shot a hole in one only the month beforeobjected, "Wait a minute!" Justice John Paul Stevens chimed in, "In dissent again."

On May 29, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against the PGA in a 7-2 vote. The Court ruled that the federal anti-discrimination law required that Martin be allowed to ride in a golf cart between shots. In writing for the majority, Justice Stevens wrote that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibited the PGA from denying Martin equal access to its tours based on his disability. Stevens added that allowing Martin to ride a golf cart during a PGA tournament would not fundamentally alter the rules of the PGA Tour. Stevens rejected the PGA's argument that the walking requirement in tour events was an integral part of PGA tournaments. Stevens cited a federal judge's ruling that Martin endured greater fatigue by riding in a cart because of his medical condition than his ablebodied competitors did by walking the golf course.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cuneff, Tom. Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Casey Martin Story. Nashville, Tenn: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.

Francis, Leslie Pickering, and Anita Silvers, eds. Americans with Disabilities. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Henriod, Lorraine. Special Olympics and Paralympics. New York: Franklin Watts, 1979.

New York Times. January 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 24, 27, 29, 1998; February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 1998; March 31, 1998; May 21, 1998; June 9, 17, 20, 1998; July 3, 1998; November 12, 1998; May 5, 18, 19, 21, 1999; October 25, 1999; December 8, 1999; March 7, 2000; June 1, 2000; September 27, 2000; January 18, 2001.

Pelker, Fred. ABC-Clio Companion to the Disability Rights Movement. Santa Barbara Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1997.