Susan Gluck Mezey, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor of political science at Loyola University, Chicago. She is former director of Loyola’s Women’s Studies Program and chair of the 1999 Forum on the Child. She is the author of Pitiful Plaintiffs: Child Welfare Litigation and the Federal Courts; No Longer Disabled: The Federal Courts and the Politics of Social Security Disability; In Pursuit of Equality: Women, Public Policy, and the Federal Courts; and Children in Court: Public Policymaking and Federal Court Decisions. Her articles have appeared in Law & Policy, Journal of Politics, American Politics Quarterly, Rutgers Law Review, Women and Politics, Judicature, Policy Studies Review, Family Law Quarterly, and Policy Studies Journal.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was intended to send a clear message to society that discrimination on the basis of disability is unacceptable. As with most civil rights laws, the courts were given primary responsibility for implementing disability rights policy.
Mezey argues that the act has not fulfilled its potential primarily because of the judiciary's “disabling interpretations” in adjudicating ADA claims. In the decade of litigation following the enactment of the ADA, judicial interpretation of the law has largely constricted the parameters of disability rights and excluded large numbers of claimants from the reach of the law. The Supreme Court has not interpreted the act broadly, as was intended by Congress, and this method of decision making was for the most part mirrored by the courts below. The high court's rulings to expand state sovereign immunity and insulate states from liability in damage suits has also caused claimants to become enmeshed in litigation and has encouraged defendants to challenge other laws affecting disability rights. Despite the law's strong civil rights rhetoric, disability rights remain an imperfectly realized goal.
Focusing on a class action lawsuit against the Illinois child welfare system (B. H. v. Johnson), Pitiful Plaintiffs examines the role of the federal courts in the child welfare policymaking process and the extent to which litigation can achieve the goal of reforming child welfare systems.
Beginning in the 1970s, children’s advocates asked the federal courts to intervene in the child welfare policymaking process. Their weapons were, for the most part, class action suits that sought widespread reform of child welfare systems. This book is about the tens of thousands of abused and neglected children in the United States who enlisted the help of the federal courts to compel state and local governments to fulfill their obligations to them. Based on a variety of sources, the core of the research consists of in-depth, open-ended interviews with individuals involved in the Illinois child welfare system, particularly those engaged in the litigation process, including attorneys, public officials, members of children’s advocacy groups, and federal court judges. The interviews were supplemented with information from legal documents, government reports and publications, national and local news reports, and scholarly writings. Despite the proliferation of child welfare lawsuits and the increasingly important role of the federal judiciary in child welfare policymaking, structural reform litigation against child welfare systems has received scant scholarly attention from a political science or public policy perspective. Mezey’s comprehensive study will be of interest to political scientists and public policy analysts, as well as anyone involved in social justice and child welfare.