National Voices

Thursday, Aug 29 2013 11:00 PM

GEORGE SKELTON: Noncitizens as jurors? It's not a discrimination issue

By The Bakersfield Californian

Bills are cascading out of the Legislature in free-fall as lawmakers race to adjournment for the year, most measures headed for the governor with little debate. It's the annual sprint to "do something" -- to make a mark, regardless of how faint.

Not all the bills, however, are as innocuous as they're treated. One such measure, granted final passage last week by the state Assembly, would substantially change California's court system by allowing noncitizen legal immigrants to serve on juries.

Nowhere else in America is a noncitizen permitted to be a juror -- not in any state, not in any federal court. The bill, AB 1401, was discussed on the Assembly floor for only seven minutes before being sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on a party-line vote, 48 to 28, with most Democrats in favor, all Republicans opposed.

It often amazes me how issues that really shouldn't have a partisan hue wind up being voted on as if they're either blue or red. There's no indication how the Democratic governor feels about opening up juries to noncitizens, or even if he has thought about it.

In the Assembly, the presiding Democrat initially called for the vote even before any opponent could speak. But freshman Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, insisted. "What is the problem that we're trying to solve?" Chávez asked. "Is there a shortage of people offering to serve on juries?"

Couldn't be that, Chávez said, reporting that 6 million Californians showed up for jury duty last year and that 165,000 were chosen.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that sponsored the bill, said the measure was about making jury pools more inclusive. He said that noncitizen legal immigrants already can be judges.

But later I called a staffer, who couldn't tell me how many noncitizen judges there are. I can't imagine a governor appointing a noncitizen to the bench, or one getting elected over any citizen rival. After all, you must be a citizen to serve in the Legislature. You have to be a citizen to be a governor who signs the laws. And you have to be a citizen to vote. It seems incongruous to allow noncitizens to determine whether a defendant has broken a law.

Supporters of the bill -- including Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles -- have cast it as a discrimination issue. They note that African Americans, Asians and even women were once barred from juries. Opening juries to noncitizens is just the latest reform, they assert. And what would be the next reform? Allowing noncitizens to vote?

This issue isn't about discrimination -- about race or gender. It's about qualifications to be a juror. Nothing prevents a legal immigrant of whatever color from taking a course on Americanism and becoming a naturalized citizen. Perez has argued that the bill is "about upholding the standards of our justice system to ensure that everyone" -- including noncitizens -- "is truly afforded a jury of their peers."

That's a good argument. But I prefer Chávez's counter. "Peers are people who understand the nuances of America," he declared.

Some people have migrated from countries where suspects are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, he said. "We actually are taught to question authority. Some cultures are taught to obey authority." Chávez, a retired Marine colonel, later gave me an example of his concern.

"In some cultures," he said, "what you and I call domestic violence is the proper relationship between a man and woman. It's OK to knock around a wife."

Before sitting on a jury that decides whether someone should be locked up, Chávez believes, that person should grow up in or study up on the United States.

Paradoxically, I'd add, noncitizens should not be allowed to become jurors for the same reason that immigrants here illegally should be granted driver's licenses. Before using our roads -- which they will regardless -- motorists should be required to pass a test showing that they understand our driving laws. Likewise, those here illegally should be -- and are -- entitled to in-state college tuitions. We want our fellow Californians to be educated.

"This is not an issue about immigrants," Chávez said during the brief Assembly debate, "because immigrants are the shining light that are going to make this country better."

The Legislature also recently passed a bill allowing noncitizen legal immigrants to serve as poll workers in elections. Brown signed it. But that's different. In one case, people are permitted to become hired help. In another, they're allowed to deny a person's freedom. Wieckowski told me that legal immigrants "may have more understanding of America's Constitution than citizens who don't get out of high school."

Maybe some do. But first they should prove it by passing a citizenship test. And the Legislature should spend more time on this stuff.

Email George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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