California Assembly OKs non-citizen jurors

The Associated Press ran a report today that caused a great deal of confusion, because the original headline originally declared that California had approved illegal immigrants for jury service.  The story itself was always perfectly clear that bill in question referred to legal non-citizen residents:

The California Assembly passed a bill on Thursday that would make the state the first in the nation to allow non-citizens who are in the country legally to serve on jury duty.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said his bill, AB1401, would help California widen the pool of prospective jurors and help integrate immigrants into the community.

It does not change other criteria for being eligible to serve on a jury, such as being at least 18, living in the county that is making the summons, and being proficient in English.

Staffers for the bill’s sponsor, Democrat Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, described it as “the first of its kind in the nation.”  It was noted by supporters of the initiative that “there is no citizenship requirement to be an attorney or a judge.”  Fox News Latino adds that “nearly 30,000 non-citizen immigrants now serve in the armed forces.”

The article goes on to say that Democrats who voted for the bill, passing it on a largely party-line vote, said they were concerned about a shortage of jurors.  This seems like a rather flimsy reason for clearing non-citizens to sit on juries, given the numbers related by the AP article:

A 2007 survey by the Center for Jury Studies said 20 percent of courts across the country reported a failure to respond or failure to appear rate of 15 percent or higher. The center is run by the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to improving court systems.

[…] An estimated 10 million Californians are summoned for jury duty each year and about 4 million are eligible and available to serve, according to the Judicial Council, which administers the state’s court system. About 3.2 million complete the service, meaning they waited in a courthouse assembly room or were placed on call.

In 2010-2011, the most recent year available, only about 165,000 people were sworn in as jurors.

20 percent of the courts reporting response rates of 85 percent or lower doesn’t sound like a critical shortage of jurors.  3.2 million successfully completing jury duty, from a pool of 4 million eligible jurors, means the overall response rate is 80 percent.  The Fox News Latino report says that “California has a total of 173,339 legal permanent residents 18 years or over.”  That doesn’t sound like enough potential jurors to make a huge difference against the existing pool of 3.2 million, especially if less than 80 percent of them respond to the summons.

Other reasons were offered by supporters of the bill:

Noting that women were once kept off juries, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said the judicial system should be changed to allow a person to be judged by their peers.

“This isn’t about affording someone who would come in as a juror something,” Perez said. “But rather understanding that the importance of the jury selection process of affording justice to the person in that courtroom.”

[…] Paula Hannaford, an expert at the Center for Jury Studies, confirmed that California would be the only place — state or locality — in the country to allow non-citizens to serve jury duty.

Hannaford said that the United States has more jury trials than the rest of the world combined, making it a challenge for courts to get enough people to serve. She also said that the law could help California???s juries achieve a more proportionate representation of Asians and Hispanics, many of whom are legal permanent residents, but not citizens.

That seems like a rather tortured extension of the “trial by a jury of your peers” concept.  Minority groups can only expect justice if members of the same group make up some “proportionate” share of the jurors?  Non-citizen defendants need non-citizen jurors to get a decent trial?  Whatever the other merits and drawbacks of extending jury duty to non-citizens may be, those don’t sound like principles we should be enshrining in our laws.