WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the PGA Tour must allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to ride a cart, rather than walk, at tour events, ending a four-year battle over the role of disability law in professional sports.
In a 7-2 decision, the court said that PGA tournaments are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the tour must therefore provide reasonable accommodations for disabled players.
Allowing Martin to use a cart, the majority said, was reasonable because it would not fundamentally alter the nature of the game, which the court described as "shot making," not the act of moving from one hole to another.
The court rejected the PGA's claim that letting Martin ride would give him an edge over his competitors, who are required under PGA rules to walk the five-mile length of an average 18-hole course.
The court said the fatigue resulting from walking a course "cannot be deemed significant," and some golfers prefer walking to riding because it helps them stay loose and maintain a rhythm.
Even if fatigue can affect the outcome of a golf tournament, the court added, Martin "easily endures greater fatigue even with a cart than his able-bodied competitors do by walking. The purpose of the walking rule is therefore not compromised in the slightest by allowing Martin to use a cart."
The ruling means that Martin, who suffers from a circulatory disorder in his right leg that makes it impossible for him to walk an 18-hole course, will be entitled to use a cart for all future PGA events he qualifies to enter.
What it means for other sports, and for disability law in general, is less certain.
Some legal experts predicted that the court's decision would have little effect on amateur and professional athletics. They noted that unlike the PGA's requirement that golfers walk from hole to hole, the rules of most sports are central to the objective of the game itself.
"I think it will affect very few sporting events because most of the rules in sports that affect people with disabilities are necessary to the game," said Georgetown law professor Chai R. Feldblum. "It's rare in sports to have these kinds of tangential rules, such as the PGA rule that you have to walk, not ride, the golf course."
But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the decision would give rise to numerous lawsuits challenging the rules of various sports. As one example, he suggested that the parents of a Little League player with attention deficit disorder might request that their child be given four strikes to hit the ball rather than three.
Scalia also argued that the court had no business deciding whether walking was a fundamental aspect of golf. He wrote that the rules of games are necessarily arbitrary and that organizations such as the PGA should be allowed to define the games they sponsor in whatever way they choose.
In his opinion for the court's majority, Justice John Paul Stevens appeared sensitive to concerns that a ruling in Martin's favor would generate a flood of lawsuits. He made clear that the court's ruling would not apply to "players with less serious afflictions that make walking the course uncomfortable or difficult, but not beyond their capacity."
For those players, Stevens said, carts - which are used by recreational players across the country, as well as in PGA qualifying events and in the Senior PGA Tour - are not necessary to participate in the game and would not be required.
Stevens also rested the court's decision upon a factual finding by a lower federal court that Martin suffers greater fatigue riding in a cart than his competitors do walking. That would suggest that other athletes seeking exemptions would need to prove that even with the exemption they still face a greater burden than nondisabled participants.
"It is reasonable to assume that the court's decision relates to Casey Martin and Casey Martin only," said PGA Commissioner Tom Finchem. He added that the tour would continue to enforce its walking rule for all other golfers and would evaluate other requests for waivers on a case-by-case basis.
Two other golfers have brought similar lawsuits against the United States Golf Association. One of those was dismissed by a federal appeals court in Illinois, and the golfer has appealed to the Supreme Court. The other case is before a federal appeals court in Texas.
Martin, 28, said he was "grateful" for the court's decision and hoped it would open doors for other disabled athletes wishing to compete professionally. A former golf standout at Stanford University, where he roomed with Tiger Woods, Martin has been fighting the PGA for the right to use a cart since he first tried to qualify for the tour in 1997.
He won his battle before two lower federal courts and was allowed to ride a cart in PGA events last season, as well as in tournaments on a second-tier tour sponsored by the PGA.
"An institution like the PGA Tour - before they just automatically knock down someone's desire for accommodation, they might have to think twice," he said.
In other developments yesterday, the court declined to hear a case that would have allowed it to confront the constitutionality of affirmative action in the university admissions process.
The case involved a challenge to the admissions policy at the University of Washington School of Law, which until 1998 used race as one factor in evaluating students' applications. Washington state residents have since voted to bar the use of race by university officials, but students who were denied admission under the earlier policy are pressing their lawsuit to recover damages.
A federal appeals court dismissed their claims in December. The Supreme Court declined to accept the case yesterday, leading to speculation that the justices are waiting for lower courts to decide similar cases in what has become one of the country's most politically and legally divisive issues.
The court will soon have another opportunity to address the issue, however. Two cases involving admissions policies at the University of Michigan are working their way through the lower courts and could reach the Supreme Court within two years.
Also yesterday, the court refused to review a lower-court ruling that city officials in Elkhart, Ind., violated the Constitution's ban against government-sponsored religion by erecting a granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the lawn in front of a city building.
Though the court did not explain the reasons for its decision not to hear the case, three justices - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas - disagreed with that decision.