Many years ago, because I was then and am now, a huge history nerd, I found myself in the National Archives. There were, at that time, two lines of people. One long line led directly to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. A much smaller line (mostly just me) led to another series of documents on display. One such document had a tremendous impact on me; an impact that continues to this day. It was a simple, handwritten letter. Written in what appears to be a struggling hand, a Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon, in 1961, asked the U.S. Supreme Court a profoundly important question — should lawyers only be provided to those who can afford them? In a case that had far-reaching implications, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that justice was not available only to those who could afford it.
I was reminded of the case, formally known as “Gideon v. Wainwright” when reading a story in Colorado Politics about Denver City Council member Chris Hinds, whose parking challenges as a person with a disability have reached the Colorado Supreme Court. Take a moment to read the article, I’ll wait here…
When I read the story, I flashed back about six weeks to when I was arriving at a Colorado Springs middle school to referee a basketball game. The parking lot was jammed with parents picking up their kids, and the school safety officer told me to park in one of the three spaces reserved for those with handicaps. I never, ever park in such slots, but the cop told me that it was after school now anyway, and there are no disabled kids at that school, so it was fine. I parked there but felt bad about it. Perhaps that was silly, given the situation, but I was uncomfortable regardless.
Hinds found himself moving into a new condo in Denver a few years back, only to find that all the reserved handicap spaces had been sold to other condo owners, because prior to Hinds’ arrival, there were no disabled residents of that building. Understandably, Hinds filed a complaint, and he won at the district court level, but lost on appeal.
Recently the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear his case, which was a disappointment to him. But Hinds, whom I have never met, appears to be exactly the kind of patriot/citizen the Founders envisioned, and he decided to run for office. He was subsequently elected to the Denver City Council. There he has worked hard on the issue of equitable access. A couple of new laws bear his fingerprints, including the new law known as the Chris Hinds Act, signed into law in 2018, which creates a statewide rule on parking and fees for folks with disabilities. A direct outcome of that law is that people with the proper handicap placard can park at meters at no charge, a very important change, especially in situation with no reserved spots for the disabled.
Which, of course, creates yet another situation of when our fundamental rights appear to be in conflict with each other. I’ve written several times about this bedrock challenge in a democracy, and I confess, as is so often the case, I’m not sure what the right answer is. If I buy a condo, isn’t it reasonable that I get a parking spot? And if there are no folks with disabilities living there, should several slots remain perpetually empty, forcing me to park elsewhere, likely at a daily fee? Likewise, if I am differently-abled than others, shouldn’t I be able to park in a handicap spot near my home? A change in the law in 2014 sides with Hines’ point of view, preventing new condo developers from selling off such parking spaces and thus harming those with disabilities, and that sounds right to me, but is it?
Yes, I think so. But that’s just my opinion.
The great justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have explained the role of the Constitution as codifying into law the idea that your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins. I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it. The problem, of course, is that some of us have longer or shorter arms, and thus oft times a clear picture of just and unjust eludes us.
Aristotle also wrote powerfully on this subject, but I shall resist the urge to quote him extensively here. But Chris Hinds, both in the court room and in council chambers, has advocated powerfully for those with disabilities, and much like Gideon’s letter, his simple message may well ripple far beyond Denver and Colorado.
In the meantime, be thoughtful about where you park.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.