When he received a summons to serve on a southern Minnesota grand jury in late 2015, Mark Valimont was eager to comply. But Valimont, who is deaf, soon learned that he had been excused from duty after requesting a sign-language interpreter to help him participate.
Now Valimont is suing the state, its judicial branch and others in U.S. District Court, alleging that his “involuntary” excusal amounted to discrimination. He also wants the judge to require that Minnesota court staff be trained for such cases in the future.
In a federal civil complaint filed this week, an attorney said Valimont told court officials he didn’t want to be excused from grand jury service. But the court “did not correct its error,” according to Rick Macpherson III, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center who took on Valimont’s case pro bono.
Valimont is calling for training for district court judges, administrators and staff in charge of selecting people to serve on Minnesota grand juries. He’s also asking that juries be provided with American Sign Language interpreters “or other appropriate auxiliary aids requested” and for changes to juror questionnaires to avoid similar confusion in the future, Macpherson said.
Minnesota Judicial Branch officials issued this statement Thursday: “The Minnesota Judicial Branch is committed to ensuring equal and equitable access to the court system, which includes ensuring that people with disabilities can participate equally in jury service.”
Macpherson said he has talked to court representatives and that there is an interest in resolving the case.
“This is not a case where the court appears to have a policy that affirmatively discriminates,” Macpherson said. “It appears to us that the court system as a whole ... [has] a policy to allow folks with disabilities to be on grand juries and something happened here where that didn’t get implemented.”
Minnesota jurors are selected from a “source list” of names pooled together from a list of licensed drivers, identification card holders and registered voters. According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, jurors must be able to communicate in English and be “physically and mentally capable of serving.” Jurors may be excused if they have “provided a doctor’s note indicating that there is a physical or mental disability preventing jury service.”
The Minnesota Judicial Branch website advises prospective jurors to contact their county’s jury office if they need “special accommodations, such as a sight or sign language interpreter, hearing amplification, or special seating.”
According to the complaint, the district court excused Valimont from grand jury duty after it received his “qualification questionnaire” and request for an interpreter on Dec. 18, 2015.
Macpherson attached a copy of the questionnaire and a separate letter in which Valimont disclosed that he was “Deaf and troubled physically body (sic). Two things I need to access is a certified legal American Sign Language interpreter and a comfortly (sic) soft chair with both soft arms to support. I happened to be a survivor.”
Both documents bear notes that appear to be written by court staff, including a judge’s notation: “Not quite clear to me. Is he asking to be removed or just telling me his needs?”
At the bottom of Valimont’s questionnaire are the words, “Request to be excused from Grand Jury Service is GRANTED,” followed by a signature.
H. Allen Blair, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said defendants in this case would need to present a justifiable reason for dismissing Valimont.
Blair added that courts typically summon more people than they need and have some discretion in deciding how to fill juries. “It is possible that the court could say that they interpreted his letter as a request to get out of jury service and by the time they found out he wanted in, they already filled the pool,” Blair said.
Valimont is also seeking compensatory damages “in excess of $50,000” and an order for the defendants to pay a civil penalty.
In addition to the state and its judicial branch, Valimont is suing the Minnesota Judicial Council, State Court Administrator’s Office and the Third Judicial District’s court administrator.
Macpherson said Valimont had been excited about the possibility of grand jury duty and felt “swatted down” when he was excused.
Valimont now lives in Mankato and, his complaint notes, is still eligible for grand jury service.