John Leo
At first glance, the Supreme Court's 7-2 ruling in the Casey Martin suit seems perfectly reasonable, even obvious. Martin is a good professional golfer. He can make the shots, but because of a degenerative condition in his right leg, he can't walk the course during tournaments, as the rules of the Professional Golf Association tour require. Should he be allowed to ride along in a golf cart, while his able-bodied competitors have to walk?

"From early on, the essence of the game has been shot-making," Justice Stevens wrote for the majority. Allowing a disabled golfer to ride between shots, he wrote, is just the sort of "reasonable modification" called for by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. It does not fundamentally change the game, as, for instance, widening the hole from 3 to 6 inches surely would.

What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing, we have the spectacle of seven judges explaining why famous golf pros like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are simply wrong about the game of golf. Nicklaus, Palmer and a parade of other stars testified that walking and the fatigue it brings are intrinsic to the game of golf at the tournament level.

Not so, said Justice Stevens, who also took the opportunity to explain to Nicklaus and Palmer that they were wrong, too, in feeling fatigued, since a lower court had found a professor somewhere who said that walking a course (about five miles) uses only 500 calories "nutritionally ... less than a Big Mac." Presumably Nicklaus and Palmer now understand how foolish they were to feel tired, and how unimportant the concept of stamina is, now that Justice Stevens has pointed it out.

This Supreme Court is always accused of being too conservative. Heaven knows why. It's an unusually intrusive court. Here the justices insert themselves into someone else's game and explain what is arbitrary and what is not. But it is not the role of judges to decide whether baseball's balk rule or football's man-in-motion rule is essential or arbitrary. ALL rules in all games and sports are arbitrary, as Justice Scalia pointed out in dissent. That is the nature of games. If everything is arbitrary, on what basis can any court decide what is essential and what isn't? And in any case, as Nicklaus and Palmer said again and again, professional golfers deserve the right to set their own rules.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.