JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – Scott Crawford has fought for nearly a decade for the right to serve on a Hinds County jury.
A consent decree recently approved by the U.S. District Court will ensure that Crawford, as well as others living with disabilities, will have that ability.
In October, the court signed off on the order that will require the county to make several improvements to its downtown Jackson courthouse, all with the intent of bringing it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The decree is the result of a nine-year struggle by Jackson disabilities rights activist Scott Crawford, who filed suit against the county after it failed to make its courthouse accessible to individuals living with accessibility issues.
Crawford is buoyed by the victory but said the real work begins now.
“We won the case. There will be good revisions on the interior that will make it accessible to people with mobility impairments,” he said. “I encourage everyone to help monitor their compliance, and file complaints if they don’t. Because once they put it in writing, it will become public record.”
Under the decree, the county has five years to bring courthouse restrooms, doors, jury boxes, and jury deliberation rooms into ADA compliance.
Until courtrooms are made accessible, circuit and county court jury selection must take place in the historic circuit court courtroom and/or, if necessary, at alternative sites, such as the Westin Hotel or Jackson Convention Complex.
The decree was signed off on by Judge Tom Lee in October after Crawford and the county reached an agreement.
Crawford said two major weaknesses of the decree are that it does not require a court-appointed monitor, nor does it address parking issues outside the court.
He said the ADA law itself has a similar weakness, with no regulatory agency put in place to enforce it.
“It’s up to citizens like myself to be assertive and go out and enforce the law,” he said. “Of course, that means we have to educate ourselves about the regulations and the law. That’s hard to do. I’ve been doing that for 15 years now, and I can tell you that Mississippi has a pattern and practice of not obeying human rights law unless forced to do so.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, ADA is enforced through lawsuits and settlement agreements. Also, DOJ cannot bring suits unless negotiations to settle the complaints fail.
“It’s going to take grassroots community efforts for people to understand the importance of the ADA, and understand that they’re discriminating against people with disabilities, not just by their deeds, but by their words,” said Augusta Smith, executive director of L.I.F.E. of Mississippi, a group that promotes living independence for people with disabilities.
“The education piece is going to have to be the piece (that gets) people to understand they’re actually breaking the law when they’re not providing the accommodations and accessibilities people need for everyday living.”
Crawford filed suit in 2017. His complaint stemmed from numerous experiences at the downtown courthouse, including the multiple times he has been called for jury duty.
A psychologist by trade, Crawford lives with Multiple Sclerosis and relies on an electric wheelchair. He moved to Hinds County in 2006, so he could be closer to family.
Since relocating, he’s been summoned for jury duty multiple times, including five times since 2012.
However, Crawford has been unable to serve because of conditions at the courthouse. He initially tried to work with the county to address the issues, but the county did little to cooperate.
“Way back in 2012, colleagues joined me at the courthouse and we did a walkthrough and we gave them a report about what they needed to do to bring the courthouse into compliance with ADA. That was given to the county as a means of educating and collaborating,” he said.
“The mantra in the disability community and mantra is ‘educate or litigate.’ We share that over and over and over again. Now, the problem with that is that education rarely works.”
Among concerns, restrooms were not accessible, despite having the international symbol of accessibility on the doors. Additionally, there were no cutouts in the jury waiting room to accommodate Crawford’s wheelchair, nor were there ways for him to access the jury box or judge’s bench.
The decree mandates that the county will construct unisex accessible bathrooms on the first, second, and third floors of the courthouse, with the first to one to be completed within 1.5 years of the consent judgment.
The county also is to remove accessible signage from inaccessible restrooms and add signs directing individuals to the accessible restrooms as soon as possible. It also must install push/pull levers on doors necessary to access courtrooms on the first, second, and third floors.
As for the courtrooms themselves, the county will be required to renovate the historic courtroom and purchase and utilize a temporary ramp for those who use wheelchairs. Signs will also be installed to allow individuals to contact the bailiff if the ramp is not in place.
Additionally, the county is required to lower the jury box and use a cutout for wheelchair access; lower the witness box and install a hinged door; and, install a lift for the witness box. One wheelchair cutout also must be installed on each side of the gallery pews.
“What is it I wish the consent decree could have done but didn’t? And the answer to that is… accessible parking,” he said. “There’s nothing in there about accessible parking.”
Crawford says there is relatively little accessible parking around the courthouse, despite the high number of people living with disabilities in the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2019, the most recent numbers available, that 20 percent of adults in Mississippi have mobility issues that make it more difficult to walk or climb stairs.
However, he says there are only a handful of accessible parking spaces at the facility.
Crawford says he does not drive and relies on public transportation to get around. As a result, the court did not require parking to be addressed as part of the decree.
“That didn’t personally affect me,” he said. “Therefore, we couldn’t make it stick with this particular lawsuit.”
Parking concerns do affect other individuals with mobility issues, including one person who recently filed a complaint with the city and the county.
Free jury parking is located at least a couple of blocks away from the courthouse, on State Street next to Martin’s Downtown.
According to the complaint, the individual, who also uses a wheelchair, could find no accessible parking spots in that designated area. “I parked close to the fence beside the sidewalk where no one would park between my vehicle and the fence. When I came out of court a smaller car squeezed in between my vehicle and the fence. I had to find someone to go in the passenger door to move my vehicle out where I could enter the vehicle.”
The decree comes months after the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Crawford could bring the suit. Two years ago, Judge Lee ruled that the courthouse was not in compliance with ADA standards, but Crawford lacked standing to file it. The Fondren activist appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit, which reversed Lee’s decision and sent the case back to his courtroom in October.
Crawford believes that the parking issue likely will have to be settled through legal means as well.
Until then, he’s going to focus on making sure the county fulfills the requirements of its current decree and is urging others who use the courthouse to help fight the battle with him.
“There’s a higher duty here. Our justice system is based on a certain principle. One of those principles is that you get a jury of your peers, meaning a representative jury that represents the community in which you live,” he said. “That means diversity. No more all-white juries. No more all-able-bodied juries. We need diversity in order to represent the community in which we live.”
Hinds County ADA Coordinator George Nelson referred all questions to County Administrator Kenny Wayne Jones. Jones could not be reached for comment.
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