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California and the West

Disabled Man Sues for Equal Access to Jury Box

January 13, 1998|THAO HUA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A college professor who says that he was unable to serve on an Orange County jury because parts of the courthouse were not wheelchair accessible filed a lawsuit against the county Monday, contending that his civil rights were violated.

In what is believed to be the first legal challenge of its kind in California, associate professor Arthur Blaser, who teaches political science at Chapman University in Orange, said he is fighting to force California courthouses to give the disabled equal access to the jury box.

"I believe it's very important for people to be active in their community," said Blaser, who has a law degree and specializes in international human rights. "And so for me, it's very frustrating that I am prevented from doing what is my right as a citizen to do, and that is to do my jury duty."

Orange County officials declined to discuss the specifics of Blaser's case Monday, but said plans are in the works to make the structural changes needed to accommodate the disabled. In the past, they said, they have worked to find ways to help disabled individuals serve on juries.

The issue is significant both because of its ramifications in Orange County and because of its potential to set a precedent allowing more disabled people to serve as jurors statewide, said attorney Laura Diamond of the Los Angeles-based Center for Law in the Public Interest, which filed the lawsuit on Blaser's behalf.

Blaser said he was summoned to jury duty by Orange County Superior Court in 1994 and 1996.

Upon his first visit, he was sent to Harbor Court in Newport Beach, where he discovered that the restroom couldn't accommodate his motorized wheelchair. Blaser said he was not selected to sit on a jury at the time, but that the inaccessibility to such a basic amenity would have made it impossible for him to serve.

When he received his second notice, he checked a box asking him if he had any special needs due to a disability, but was promptly excused, he said.

"I never wanted to be excused," Blaser said.

The 44-year-old Orange resident suffered a stroke in May 1993, which left him unable to control his legs and left hand. According to the suit filed Monday in Orange County Superior Court, Blaser is asking for a court order forcing the county to provide those with disabilities with equal access to the courthouses.

The professor said he is not asking for any money.

Under the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, municipalities must make government services, buildings, programs and activities accessible to the disabled, with the exception of cases in which cost is an undue burden.

The professor's lawsuit says that he has "a clear, present and beneficial interest in and right to the county's compliance with this regulation in that, among other things, the county's failure to comply has endangered his safety and violated his civil rights."

The county was obligated to be in compliance with the federal law by January 1995. But at that time the county had only identified problem areas, Diamond said.

"The county began the process required by the ADA," Diamond said. "They identified volumes worth of barriers, including bathrooms being inaccessible. Of course, what they didn't do is figure out how they would fix the problems."

County officials concede that they failed to correct some of the problems by the deadline, but cite the county's December 1994 plunge into bankruptcy as one of the reasons they were unable to come up with the funds to make the structural changes.

"We're not proud of the fact that we haven't been able to do that," said Marlene Nelson, assistant executive officer in charge of Superior Court administration.

Blaser's attorneys disputed the county's argument, pointing out that although officials failed to provide access to the disabled, they have consistently provided other services such as road repairs.

"The reason that changes weren't made is because the county didn't put a priority on them," Diamond said.

Cases involving the right of disabled people to serve on juries have sprouted across the country, in many cases resulting in rulings for the plaintiffs, said Judge Matthew Crehan, an Ohio jurist who has researched the subject.

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