Aliens in the jury box? Jury’s still out


By RALPH E. SHAFFER

A bill rapidly moving through the California state legislature will require alien immigrants, regardless of the length of time they’ve been in the U.S., to serve as jurors in the state’s courts. If the wacky politicians of the Golden State think it’s a good idea, can other legislatures be far behind?

Green card holders in Hawaii, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Washington, Florida, New York and every other state with large non-citizen populations will be eligible for jury service if the California experiment spreads.

At present no state knowingly allows non-citizens to serve on juries. Since lists of eligible jurors are often compiled from holders of drivers licenses, it is possible that immigrants who have not yet applied for citizenship. or who haven’t been here long enough to apply, may receive a jury summons and quietly serve. If this bill becomes law, aliens would comprise about 10 percent of the California’s jury pool.

The California bill is very simple. Existing law requires that jurors be citizens of the U.S. Under the proposal, “lawfully resident immigrants” would also be eligible. There is no minimum residency required. If all the other requirements, such as the ability to understand English, are met, an immigrant arriving on the next boat could sit on a jury — as soon as a drivers license is obtained.

That phrase, “lawfully resident immigrants,” differs from the terminology used by federal agencies dealing with immigration. The Department of Homeland Security [DHS] uses the phrase “legal permanent residents” to distinguish those aliens who immigrated under the normal process and reside permanently in the this country before becoming citizens. But many of them — several million according to DHS statistics — have been here long enough to become citizens but chose to remain citizens of their home country. Charlie Chaplin lived in the U. S. for over forty years as a “lawfully resident immigrant” and never became a citizen. Under the California bill, Chaplin could have served on a jury.

In the nation at present, 13 million immigrants would no longer be excluded from jury service simply because they aren’t citizens. While their numbers would be inconsequential in some localities, the states mentioned above would, like California, have an abundance of alien jurors.

There is a suspicion that the California jury reform is intended as a first step toward extending voting rights to non-citizens. This may explain the party line vote on the bill, where only one Democrat opposed it, along with all the Republicans. As the bill now reads, the 2.6 million illegal aliens residing in California would not be eligible for jury service. If the bipartisan plan now under consideration in Congress is adopted, those illegals would become “lawfully resident immigrants” and potential jurors. That would increase the proportion of non-citizens on California’s juries under this bill to nearly 20 percent.

The same argument used to justify aliens on juries — judgment should be rendered by one’s peers — also justifies voting rights for non-citizens. In California and elsewhere across the country Democrats see the huge Hispanic alien population as a likely source of several million voters who will support Democratic candidates.

Non-citizens already vote in some local elections in various parts of the nation. In the mid-19th century, several states extended voting rights to immigrants as a means of luring them to settle there. Whether or not citizenship is a requirement for voting is up to individual states.

Perhaps jury duty for aliens is one of those reforms whose time has come. Before rushing into it, however, state legislatures would be wise to carefully consider what the impact of that reform will be.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history and an occasional contributor to Stephens Media.

 

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