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August 27, 2013
Editorial: State should limit juries to citizens


(Aug. 27 - By the Editorial Board)

American citizens routinely try to avoid jury duty, a basic responsibility of citizenship. Many citizens also decline to vote, a basic right of citizenship.

But now comes along a bill, Assembly Bill 1401, that calls into question the very meaning of citizenship. Should foreigners on the path to citizenship, who have the status of "lawful permanent residents" and hold green cards, be allowed to serve on California juries?

The Legislature, on a 25-11 vote in the Senate and a 48-28 vote in the Assembly, said these noncitizens should enjoy this right of citizenship.

Gov. Jerry Brown should veto the bill. Like voting or holding public office, jury duty is one of the ways that citizens share in the governance of our democratic republic

Lawful permanent residents are potential future citizens, who qualify for citizenship within five years. They should be encouraged to make the transition to citizenship - not provided incentives to avoid taking that final step. Why should green card holders become citizens if they can enjoy the rights of citizenship?

Nothing in the California or U.S. constitutions prohibits noncitizen service on juries. Proponents are correct that in the early days of the republic, courts in many states had the discretion to create a half-citizen, half-noncitizen juries for cases that involved foreigners - for example, a criminal trial involving foreign sailors in the murder of a sea captain or a civil case involving foreign traders.

That argument is a dodge, however. AB1401 is not calling for the restoration of that medieval-origin medietate linguae ("half tongue") practice. It had disappeared worldwide by the late 19th century.

The main argument for AB1401 is that individuals should have access to a trial by a "jury of their peers." Just think about that. If an American citizen commits a crime or sues in commercial courts in Great Britain (or any other country with a jury system), should he expect a jury of British citizens - or of Americans? Foreigners among us deserve fair treatment in the courts, but they should not share in the governance structures that go to the heart of our representative government until they become citizens.

This is not, as Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez claims, like the exclusion of women or blacks from jury duty and voting. They fought long battles to win the rights and responsibilities of equal citizenship.

California has 3.4 million green card holders, and 2.5 million of them are eligible for citizenship. They should be encouraged to go through that process.

AB1401 does not deal with a more vexing issue, which is that we have millions of potential Americans among us who are denied a path to citizenship. We have so many barriers to legal immigration that many people are in the United States illegally. That is a matter for Congress to fix - and that is where our Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown should focus.

Rather than devaluing citizenship by giving noncitizens the essential rights of governance, our legislators should be pressing Congress to fix our broken immigration system.

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November 2013

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