Casey Martin at the Disability Empowerment Center, Phoenix, Ariz., Dec. 1, 2010

It should not have been a surprise, I suppose, that a story about a professional golfer would have some Arizona connection. And so it was the case with Casey Martin, who stopped by Arizona to speak at a State Bar event.

And yet his nexus with the Grand Canyon State was a part of his instructive tale I had never heard. But more on that in a bit.

Like most Bar committees, the Committee on Persons With Disabilities in the Legal Profession strives to create relevant and dynamic seminars. But (surprise!) the life of the law can sometimes be, shall we say, a bit dry. How to educate well enough to provide CLE credit, but edify enough to keep them coming back for more?

Their December 1 seminar achieved both goals. Titled “If You Let Us Play: Sports, Disabilities and the impact of the Law,” it included not only Casey Martin (of sports and law fame), but also lawyer Jose de Jesus Rico, who golfed cleanup after Martin spoke.

JJ Rico kept everyone alert and entertained on the back nine (OK, that’s my last golf joke) as he explained the facts and the law of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Like any great instructor, he made the law comprehensible through examples. His accessibility stories came from sports arenas we all know. As he described real-life scenarios involving coaches, players and spectators, we could picture the venue and understand the unmet need.

Jose de Jesus (JJ) Rico

His six-page “cheat sheet” of Title III cases is one I will hold onto—at least until the next time the Supreme Court renders a new ADA decision. His talk was a birdie, if not a hole-in-one (OK, I lied about the golf jokes).

Rico’s success is all the more noteworthy given Casey Martin’s presentation that preceded him.

Martin was introduced by Michael Somsan, a Community Legal Services attorney who is also non-sighted. Somsan explained how he had committed himself to the task of bringing Martin to the state to speak. Gesturing toward Joe Mikitish and other committee members, Somsan laughed, “They got the blind guy to hunt him down.”

Michael Somsan

The stories Martin told circled around his legal case that ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001. But it began and ended with his love of sport.

The young Martin grew up in Eugene, Ore., idolizing the Ducks. He discovered he could golf, despite a problem with his right leg.

He suffers from something called Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome. Or, as he told the audience, “My blood goes down the leg, but won’t come back up so well.” Despite the painful condition, he performed well enough to get offered a spot on the Stanford golf team (where he played with Tiger Woods, among others).

And that’s where Arizona’s initial role in his career arose.

While with the team, Martin played 36 holes at the ASU Karsten Golf Course. On a hot day, he struggled over the mogul-filled course, all while his leg felt worse and worse. The Arizona State coach urged him to use a cart, but Martin got through the round entirely upright.

L to R: Emily Johnston, Randall Howe (back to camera), Joe Mikitish, JJ Rico, Casey Martin

Back in Oregon, his coach insisted that he use a cart. So for two years, he would occasionally ride rather than walk.

His difficulties grew worse as he got into the qualifying tournament for the PGA Tour. He knew a cart was not permitted, but with the assistance of a lawyer friend, he put together a package of materials, asking the PGA for cart permission.

It was returned unopened.

That non-response led to his legal efforts. (Martin says that because the ADA requires an individualized assessment of a person’s needs, the PGA may have made a significant mistake in failing to make a substantive response.) He filed for an injunction, and won.

As his case wound through the courts, Martin saw the attention on him grow.

“There was Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson, and all of the other top players with all their media attention—and then there was me,” also with a growing parade of media correspondents.

He won at trial, and then at the Ninth Circuit. At every stage, the PGA appealed. But his lawyer told him that the U.S. Supreme Court was unlikely to take “a golf cart case.” But the Court confounded expectations, and Martin won his case, 7 to 2. (Read the opinion here.)

Casey Martin

As Martin speaks, he shifts from leg to leg, transferring his weight on and then off the limb that only four years ago he thought would have to be amputated.

In 2006, Martin stopped playing professionally. He is now the head golf coach at the University of Oregon.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” says Martin with a smile. “No pun intended.”

Martin says that he learned some lessons through the experience.

First, he came away with added respect for lawyers, whom he saw “brutalized” by the Justices in the Supreme Court oral argument.

“For all the bad press you guys get, it was impressive to see all the pressure the lawyers were under.”

In that regard, he also praises his friend Bill Wiswall, the Oregon personal injury lawyer who initially persuaded the golfer to pursue a legal remedy.

Martin also learned to accept the mixed message that the sport he loved was conveying to him. For instance, in his trial the PGA had golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer testify for it. They stated that the game’s purity required that carts not be allowed.

“It’s not a great feeling when the pillars of the game tell the court that you are harming the sport.”

Martin puts the comments into context.

“Golf doesn’t have a great history of being forward-thinking in a lot of ways.” He speaks about the reception that women and people have color have gotten from the game, and the changes they wrought.

But things change, Martin says.

“The family of George Bush has been big in the PGA,” he says. “And then George Bush signed the ADA.”

“I’m hopeful that as golf progresses, it will not just be a crusty, white, wealthy sport.”

With that, Martin thanked the audience and left the room. With a limp, he headed back north to his new generation of student–athletes.