When: Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 10 a.m. EST. (Decision in spring or early summer.)
Where: Supreme Court building, One First Street NE, Washington D.C.
Who: For the PGA Tour, appellate lawyer H. Bartow Farr III, 56, a former law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, now a partner in the Washington firm of Farr & Taranto. For Casey Martin, New York City appellate specialist Roy Reardon, 71, of the firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
How: Each lawyer will have 30 minutes to address the nine Justices of the Supreme Court (Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Steven Breyer, David Souter, and Clarence Thomas). The time limits are strictly enforced. Justices may interrupt with questions, and often do. There are no witnesses.
TV coverage: On Jan. 17, Adam Barr live from Washington at about 11:30 a.m. EST. Golf Central with Adam Barr at 7:30 p.m. EST. Viewers Forum with Adam Barr live at 9 p.m. EST. No cameras are allowed in the courtroom.
Why: In 1997, professional golfer Casey Martin, who suffers from a rare circulatory disorder that makes it impossible to walk the golf course, sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart in the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. He convinced a federal court in Eugene, Oregon to grant a temporary injunction requiring the Tour to comply.
In February 1998, the same court held a trial on the issue of whether the temporary injunction should become permanent. Six days of proceedings included testimony from Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ken Venturi, former U.S. Golf Association president Judy Bell and Martin himself. A dramatic videotape of Martin's afflicted leg upset many in the courtroom. The court decided for Martin.
The PGA Tour appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals region in which Eugene is found. That court affirmed the trial court; Martin prevailed again.
The PGA Tour, which had intimated that it would not take the case further, changed its plan in light of the decision in Olinger v. USGA, in which an Indiana golf pro sued the USGA for the right to use a cart in U.S. Open qualifying - and lost. The case was reviewed in a different circuit, and the result stood.
This emboldened the Tour to take the matter to the Supreme Court, which it did on July 5, 2000. On Sept. 26, the Court decided to take the appeal. (In most cases, it is up to the Supreme Court whether it will hear a case.) The Court's acceptance, which requires the consent of at least four Justices, means that at least that many Justices have concerns about the result in the courts below.
What it all means: The Supreme Court may well decide that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), on which Martin relied in court, was not designed to protect competitors in sporting events.
If that happens, it's likely that the Tour will decide to withstand the public relations hit involved in taking Martin's cart away. Some have speculated that even if the Tour won, it would make a one-time exception for Martin, whom it has been careful to call a fine young man at every opportunity. But just as often, the Tour has stressed the importance of uniformity of competitive rules.
No one denies that Martin is disabled. Also, there is no dispute that Martin is an independent contractor, so he is not covered by Title I, the portion of the ADA that protects disabled employees from discrimination.
The central issue will be whether golf courses used for Tour events are what the Title III of the ADA calls 'places of public accommodation.' In such places, clients and customers seeking services can't be discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Among the places listed in the Act as public accommodations are golf courses and places of exhibition and entertainment.
The Tour will argue that Congress never intended to include the area inside the ropes in the definition of a public accommodation. Just as the audience of a theater is not invited backstage, so the spectators of a golf tournament are not generally invited inside the ropes where the tournament is played, the Tour reasons. Therefore, the ADA would not apply.
The Tour will also argue that the ADA applies only to 'clients and customers' of public accommodations, not workers or performers there.
The Tour will also argue that even if a golf tournament is a public accommodation, allowing Martin to use a cart would 'fundamentally alter' the nature of the of the Tour's primary activity, which is putting on golf tournaments at the highest level of competition. Under the ADA, owners of public accommodations need not make allowances for the disabled if doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the primary activities done there, even though they admittedly have a public accommodation. That's Congress's way of balancing the interests of the Act with the possible hardships on facility owners.
Martin will argue through his lawyers that Congress indeed intended the inside-the-ropes area to be a public accommodation, rather than to cut out an entire class of people who could benefit from the ADA. Martin's lawyers will also say that the issue of fundamental alteration - the courts below said riding a cart would not fundamentally alter the Tour's business - was tried completely in the trial court, and that that finding should not be disturbed.
The legal issues are complex, and emotions run high on this issue throughout the world of golf. But at the Supreme Court, intellect is supposed to override emotion and passion. The academic crucible of the law will test the assertions of the lawyers - and to a great extent, determine the future of professional golf.