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(Reuters) - A Mississippi man who uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis can sue his county government for excluding him from jury duty by failing to make its courthouse accessible, a federal court has ruled.
A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling dismissing the case on the grounds that plaintiff Scott Crawford's injury was speculative, since it was not certain he would be called to jury duty in the Hinds County courthouse in the future.
"Dr. Crawford is thrilled that the Fifth Circuit got it right: no person should be systemically excluded from access to a courthouse," said Andrew Bizer of Bizer & DeReus, Crawford's lawyer, in an email. "Hopefully, Hinds County will stop fighting Dr. Crawford in federal court and will focus their energies on ADA compliance in their own court."
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The county and its attorney Katelyn Riley did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Crawford, a retired clinical neuropsychologist, sued Hinds County under the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2017, saying he had been unable to perform jury duty in 2012 and 2015 because of the courthouse's design.
The first time, he said, he found that the main entrance was not wheelchair accessible and that a side entrance was too heavy to be opened easily by a person in a wheelchair. He said the public restrooms were not accessible either, forcing him to relieve himself in his incontinence undergarments.
In the courtroom itself, Crawford said, there was no place for his wheelchair and he was unable to approach the judge or reach the jury box. Crawford said he realized it would not be practical to serve unless the trial was short, and that when he conveyed that to the judge, he was excused.
Following that experience, according to the lawsuit, Crawford, working with advocacy group Living Independence for Everyone, contacted county officials and sought to make courthouses more accessible. When he was summoned for jury duty again three years later, however, no progress had been made, he said.
Following a bench trial, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee of the Southern District of Mississippi found that Crawford had proven the Hinds County courthouse was not accessible to disabled people. However, he also reconsidered his earlier ruling that Crawford had standing and reversed it, finding that the possibility of being excluded from future jury duty was too speculative.
Circuit Judge Jerry Smith wrote Wednesday that Crawford had standing.
"Hinds County is not extremely populous, and only a subset of its population is eligible for jury service, so it's fairly likely that Crawford will again, at some point, be called for jury duty," the judge wrote. The panel remanded the case to the district court.
Smith was joined by U.S. District Judge J. Campbell Barker of the Eastern District of Texas.
Circuit Judge James Ho wrote a separate concurrence that the court should also consider additional jury summonses Crawford received in 2018 and 2019.
The case is Crawford v. Hinds County Board of Supervisors, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-60372.
For Crawford: Andrew Bizer of Bizer & DeReus
For Hinds County: Katelyn Riley