This is one part in a new KPCC series looking at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come along with being a citizen. Let us know what you think.
A New Mexico Supreme Court ruling this week underscored the rights of non-English speakers to serve as jurors in the state's trials. Its constitution declares clearly that the right of any citizen to, "Sit upon juries, shall never be restricted...on account of...inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages."
It's the only state in the union to make such an accommodation by providing interpreters for prospective jurors. In California, jurors must be able to understand basic English, but there are no tests to address fluency and comprehension.
"Usually it's a case by case matter…The standard is, in California, can you understand English enough to understand and discuss the case? Which is a low and rather unformed standard," said Andrew Ferguson, Assistant Law Professor, University of the District of Columbia, on AirTalk. "Many times, out of the abundance of caution, [a] juror may be dismissed, not because they couldn't do the job, but because the judge and the lawyers are uncertain."
This wrinkle in jury selection gets to so many issues: diverse cross-sections of jurors, levels of comprehension, costs to the legal system, discrimination, and a growing population of new Americans.
This is an issue that comes up often in largely multicultural cities like Los Angeles, which are home to many immigrants with varying levels of English comprehension.
"Some judges look at it as a juror trying to get off the jury by using the excuse that they can't comprehend it. Attorneys...sometimes do want to dismiss the juror because the last thing they want is a juror that can't understand the case," said Richard Gabriel, the President of the trial consulting firm Decision Analysis, Inc. "While most the other states take a cautious approach about not allowing jurors who can't understand the case, New Mexico takes an affirmative approach and says you should make greater efforts to include those non-English speakers by providing interpreters.
How difficult are jury deliberations if you had an interpreter or even multiple interpreters? How often do Americans with a foreign mother tongue use that as a fake excuse to get out of jury duty? What’s the harm and benefit of excluding non-English speakers from juries?
Andrew Ferguson, author of “Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide To Constitutional Action;” former Public Defender in the District of Columbia; Assistant Law Professor, University of the District of Columbia
Richard Gabriel, the President of Decision Analysis, Inc. a national trial consulting firm with offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco