Misguided: California’s push for immigrants in juries

by Christopher Wm. Rasmussen

Historically, California has been on the forefront of progressive legislation and policy. Perhaps in an attempt to revitalize this image after a number of years of shifting attitudes regarding California – specifically, the seeming dispersion of markets that had previously been dominated by the California machine – the State legislature has made an attempt to bring forth new, groundbreaking legislation.

An example of this is Assembly Bill 1401, which was introduced on March 12, 2013 and aims to expand jury eligibility in California to lawfully present immigrants; which is defined as immigrants or non-citizens who have been inspected and admitted into the United States and not overstayed the period for which they were admitted, or have current permission from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services to stay or live in the U.S.

As it stands today, Section 203 of the Code of Civil Procedure, relating to jury duty, removes from jury eligibility, among other things, to “Persons who are not citizens of the United States.” This, according to some in the legislature, has been the limiting factor regarding low juror turnout. There is therefore hope that an expansion of eligibility will bring new, perhaps invigorated, persons into the courtrooms across the state.

There is no contesting the fact that California is home to the largest immigrant population in the United States. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state is home to more than 10 million immigrants – 26% of whom presumably have the form of lawfully present status required to fit the juror criteria proposed in AB 1401. Strictly as a matter of statistics, it is clear that introducing over 2.5 million people into the jury pool could indeed increase the net number of human being filling juror seats. What isn’t clear, however, are the cultural and societal externalities of such a change.

According to the AP, Assemblyman Bob Wiecowski (D-Fremont) the author of the bill, makes the claim that the passing of AB 1401 would both help California widen the pool of applicants and help integrate immigrants into the community. Despite the apparent good intentions, what Assemblyman Wiecowski fails to consider is the implications, in principal, of United States citizens being judged not by their peers, but by foreign-born, non-citizens . What is called into question with AB 1401 is a distinction between both (a) the rights and responsibilities of American citizenry and (b) the confusion of the integration of values with the imposition of values- with respect to foreign peoples.

The United States of America is a country predicated upon various balances of power; indeed, at the core of the various hierarchies are the powers and responsibilities of citizenry. Despite a more intuitive assessment of American democracy, one which it is easily assumed that those truly in power are our elected officials, the title of citizen is a title worth taking seriously. Indeed, Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “The only title in [American] democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen.”

According the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, citizenship entails various rights and responsibilities. Rights include: freedom of expression, worship, fair trial by jury, etc. Responsibilities, however, include: to support and defend the Constitution, participation in the democratic process, respect and obey federal, state, and local laws, and, among others, serve on a jury when called upon.

Indeed, before taking on formal citizenship, one is arguably not included in the bill of rights and its privileges. There is a common conflation found between citizen rights and human rights that is perhaps the product of an ambiguation brought forth by an idealistic view of the world.

Clearly, if it is the case that serving on a jury in the United States is a responsibility of American citizens, it follows that it is not the responsibility of those who fall outside the purview of American citizenry. Further, if it is not a responsibility of non-citizens, one can justifiably question the legitimacy of any judgment that they would make in a court of law- as, by definition, non-citizens are not responsible for making such a judgment.

Regarding the confusion between integration of values and imposition of values, simply consider the function of juries: juries exist in order to pass a common judgment that is based upon the shared values of a specific culture or society.

When a person stands trial, he or she is granted the right, by the Constitution, of judgment by an impartial jury. That is, a jury which holds no prejudice with respect to the person, the crime, or to United States law. It is therefore inappropriate to consider an instance where a person who, for all intents and purposes, has not operated within the confines of the law of the United States in such a way as to foster a genuine understanding of its nuances and implications, is allowed to sit on a jury with the express purpose of passing a common judgment.

As a point of comparison, imagine a case where a professor of physics was suddenly promoted to teach a course on tort law at a law school. It should seem obvious that such a professor would be outside the context of his understanding and such an appointment would indeed be inappropriate – similarly, the notion of non-citizens sitting on juries is qualitatively absurd.

Contrary to Assemblyman Wiecowski’s notion of the integration of immigrants into the communities, it is instead an effective integration of the communities to the immigrants. Indeed, if AB 1401 were to pass, it could legitimately be said that men and women across America are being judged not by a common understanding of values, but by a forced and uncomfortable synthesis of foreign values and American values – a notion that is inherently horrifying but is being masqueraded as a necessary and sufficient solution to a problem that could be dealt with otherwise.

2 comments on “Misguided: California’s push for immigrants in juries
  1. Chris, “Contrary to Assemblyman Wiecowski’s notion of the integration of immigrants into the communities, it is instead an effective integration of the communities to the immigrants.” Powerful, powerful man. Great writing and I think straight to the most important point, our value system.
    I guess, I’m left with the simple question: Who is going to be on our future juries? If Americans, or Californians, continue to be too lazy or “busy” to serve in our justice system, how will it continue? Sure stricter punishments could help with motivation, but punishments are not typically as motivating as one’s values. Have Americans lost the value for our incredible justice system?

  2. Well stated. (I first read this analysis/opinion on 7 May 2014.)

    Part of the difficulty in seating jurors under the current system is the pitiful “recompense” we receive for a day’s work. In Contra Costa County, unless one has an unusually generous employer, one must take an unpaid day off to drive to Martinez/Richmond/other venue, sit around and wait to be called, then go home.
    Cost of gas = ? Cost of childcare = ? Disruption to caregiving responsibilities for elders, if such are part of one’s life = ?
    Recompense = $0 for one day.

    (The only time I ever made it to voir dire, I was peremptorily excused because I had worked in college as a legal secretary (comparable to paralegals these days). The attorneys didn’t want anyone near their trial, evidently, who might actually be able to see their posturing for what it was….)

    But things improve if we’re actually seated for a two-day or longer trial! We receive $15 each day from the second day onward. Real Big Bucks.

    Yes, there are exemptions. But I think the lack of recompense, esp. when so many people are on the economic edge already, added to the lack of enforcement–many people simply don’t show up! appalling!–needs to be addressed first.

    I cannot *imagine* the vast number of overturned verdicts awaiting the appellate and supreme courts from trial-level attorneys whose clients are convicted by non-peers, i.e., non-citizens. Entitled to a jury of one’s peers means exactly that: other citizens of the United States of America.

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