New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law


Deaf People are not Deaf to Justice

Deaf people are not deaf to justice. Blind people aren’t blind to justice either. When deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, and visually-impaired people are offered accommodations, generally, there should not be any issues related to fulfilling their juror obligations. Provided that individuals with disabilities understand the proceedings and can intelligently answer questions during the voir dire stage, they can serve their juror obligations just as well as anyone.

Caption: Empty seats in the jury box

Yet, I was disheartened several weeks ago when I heard through the grapevine that certain legislators at the North Carolina House of Representatives were opposed to the idea that the deaf and hard-of-hearing should serve as jurors. The National Association of the Deaf blogged about this in North Carolina Legislators Oppose Deaf Jurors. When I read some of the transcript excerpts, I was astonished.

One legislator said, “You know we don’t have quadriplegics running track. Nor do we need to have deaf persons serving on juries…. But if you think about this realistically, folks, as an attorney, I’m never going to let a deaf person serve on a jury. It’s not going to happen.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this the 21st century?

Embarrassing remarks such as the one just quoted above shocks the conscience because these words were spoken by well-educated people who apparently have little knowledge of federal disability laws and have had scant interaction with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Those of you who are familiar with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act know that these are federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Individuals who are disabled are protected under these laws, and that includes jurors and potential jurors.

It is incredible that in the many years since the passage of the two laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, North Carolina still has a law on the books that excludes jurors on the basis of a hearing impairment. (If you enjoy reading statutes, the pertinent North Carolina provision is Section 14-7-810.) Since federal law pre-empts state law, any interpretation relating to Section 14-7-810 that excludes individuals who are disabled from the jury pool is out of compliance with the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While not commonplace, the fact is that there have been deaf and hard-of-hearing jurors in civil and criminal cases. Keith Davis is a deaf individual who served as juror on a murder case in Atlanta. Karen Smith is a deaf individual who served as juror on a criminal case in Rochester, Minnesota. For a personal perspective on what it is like to be a deaf juror in a civil and criminal case, see Sheila Mentkowski’s blog post.

You’ll notice that Keith Davis, Karen Smith, Sheila Mentkowski, and many other deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who have served as jurors, were provided accommodations. There are several different kinds of accommodations that a deaf or hard-of-hearing person may request: sign language interpreter, cued speech interpreter, Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART), to name a few. These are but tools that facilitate effective communication. With these tools, deaf and hard of hearing jurors are able to understand what is being said in the courtroom and satisfactorily fulfill their juror obligations. Federal law requires that the courts provide these accommodations not only to deaf and hard-of hearing jurors, but deaf and hard-of-hearing witnesses and parties as well.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who live in New Jersey, as well as attorneys who practice in New Jersey, are encouraged to be familiar with the Guidelines for Trial Involving Deaf Jurors Who Serve With the Assistance of Sign Language Interpreters. Those living outside of New Jersey are encouraged to check the Advocacy Statement: Communication Access in State and Local Courts (2008), which was published by the National Association of the Deaf.

I don’t know if anyone from the North Carolina legislature will read this blog post, but I hope that the way they think about jurors who are deaf and hearing impairments change. Like it or not, there are 36 million people in this country with some degree of hearing loss. As the population ages, that number will increase. If potential jurors are deaf or have any degree of hearing impairment, but are able to understand the proceedings and answer questions truthfully, they should be permitted to serve on a jury.

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    There are 2 comments. Add Yours.

    Karen Putz

    Excellent post on an issue that needs to be spotlighted–with proper accommodations, people with disabilities can serve on a jury. I was appalled at the quote by the legislator. Give me a qualified interpreter, and I can fulfill my jury duty and do it with pride. Just get the attitudes out of my way.