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Crime & Justice

Immigration: Governor Brown considers allowing 3.4M non-citizens to serve on juries

AB1401 would allow legal permanent residents to serve on juries.
AB1401 would allow legal permanent residents to serve on juries. "Its only fair," said Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), one of the bill’s authors. (Photo by Fred Prouser-Pool/Getty Images)
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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.

California could become the first state to allow non-citizens to serve on criminal and civil juries, under legislation now on the governor’s desk.

“The jury system is based on our peers judging us,” said Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), one of the bill’s authors. “It's only fair, because so many people living in California are legal permanent residents.”

Under AB1401, non-citizen legal permanent residents would be allowed to serve on juries. Federal law allows such residents – sometimes called “Green Card Holders” – to stay in the country as long as they like. Some are in the process of applying for citizenship. Others choose to remain citizens of other countries.

Weickowski said the idea is to create juries that more closely resemble California. Temporary visa holders and undocumented immigrants are not included.

Supporters also say the bill would ease the sometimes-difficult task of finding people willing serve on juries.

While the state Assembly and Senate approved the bill, it drew strong opposition from Republicans and a handful of Democrats, as well as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.

“It’s putting the cart in front of the horse,” said FAIR spokesman Bob Dane. “We’re going to have people making important jury decisions who may have limited to no knowledge of how our society works and little to no stake in it.”

Weickowski argued a lot of citizens don’t understand how juries work, and that’s why judge’s issue instructions.

Right now, jurors must be at least 18 years old, speak English, reside in the county where the trial is held, and agree to follow the law, under California law.

Local prosecutors appear unconcerned about the proposed change. A spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney said the bill is “not on our radar.”

Public defenders expressed similar sentiments.

“Our interest as a public defender is in having fair jurors,” said Kelly Emling, Chief Deputy Public Defender in LA County. “Obviously, we are also happy to have a jury with a diversity of viewpoints. That’s the point of the California jury system.”

Adding non-citizens to juries could change verdicts, said U.C. Santa Cruz Professor of Sociology Hiroshi Fukurai, who also serves as a jury consultant. He said non-citizens would raise different issues during deliberations because of their life experiences.

“By introducing those particular views, that will enrich the deliberation process, that will expand the range of topics to be discussed and evaluated,” said Fukurai.

Decades ago the state prohibited women, African Americans, and even people over 60 years old from serving on juries. Some in the state legislature see the ban on legal permanent citizens in the same light.

There’s plenty of precedent for allowing non-citizens to sit in judgment, said UC Irvine Political Science Professor Louis Desipio. Most states in the 19th century allowed permanent residents to serve on juries, and even vote.

“In the old days, we understood the period of permanent residence as one where immigrants were citizens in waiting, or citizens in training,” Desipio said. The practice ended as laws became more restrictive.

Opponents remain unconvinced. Serving on a jury is a privilege – even if many people try to avoid it – and it should be reserved for citizens, said FAIR’s Dane.

"If we’re doing that before immigrants finish their naturalization process, and take their time and become citizens, it really demeans citizenship,” said Dane.

Governor Brown has not said whether or not he’ll sign the bill.