It’s one thing to give undocumented immigrants an opportunity — however limited and lengthy and expensive — to gain American citizenship if they’ve lived and worked in this country for a long time while contributing and without committing any criminal offenses.
Driver’s licenses for the undocumented also make some sense, especially since many law enforcement officials say that could compel those here illegally to obey laws requiring car insurance, thus cutting down the expenses of other drivers who may be involved in accidents with them.
But one bill that has passed the state Assembly and is now in the Senate simply makes no sense: Called AB 1401, this proposal would allow non-citizens to serve on juries in California’s state courts.
Never mind the long-standing American tradition of a having a jury of the defendant’s peers determine whether criminal charges are valid. That’s merely a custom, not a constitutional right.
The Sixth Amendment says only that every American is entitled to an “impartial jury” and that its members should live in the state or district where the crime under consideration took place. Courts have interpreted this to mean jury pools should contain a cross-section of the population of the area, in terms of gender, race and national origin.
No one yet has specified that jurors must be U.S. citizens, perhaps because at the time the Bill of Rights — the Constitution’s first 10 amendments — was written in 1789 and finally ratified by the states two years later, it could be difficult to determine who was a U.S. citizen. Birth and immigration record-keeping was far from comprehensive.
But proving citizenship today is far easier, via birth certificates, passports and naturalization papers. So it’s fair to figure that if the Bill of Rights were being written today, it would specify that all jurors be citizens.
But the door to non-citizen jurors was left open a crack, and some Democratic state legislators now want to walk through it.
Juries, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski of Fremont told a reporter the other day, “should reflect our community and our community is always changing. It’s time for California to be a leader on this.”
He said jury service for legal residents who are not citizens also would help ensure an adequate pool of jurors and help immigrants integrate into American society.
But suppose you are suing a used car dealer for selling you a vehicle with faulty brakes that caused an accident. Would you want a juror who’s a citizen of a county where such lawsuits are not possible? If you’ve been raped, would you want your accused assailant judged by a man from a country where women have few rights and are penalized for extramarital sex, even if it was forced on them?
Wieckowski is correct that immigrants often need time and training to adjust to American life and values. Should the guilt or innocence of any American be determined even in part by persons not completely familiar with this country’s values and customs?
In fact, customs vary by locale in a state as large as California, and the framers of the Constitution, who also wrote the Bill of Rights, knew that would be inevitable. It’s why they said juries must be local residents, not imports from faraway places.
There’s also the question of dilution of citizenship. There are already proposals (none has yet become law) to allow non-citizens to vote in some local elections. Non-citizens who have caused no trouble can qualify for easy passage through customs and immigration checkpoints via the federal Trusted Traveler and Global Entry programs.
If citizenship is no longer required for many of the duties and privileges it once conferred, does it lose some of its value? Is there any advantage to being a citizen over merely carrying a green card?
And especially, when the fate, freedom and fortune of any American citizen is at stake, why should anyone but another citizen help decide?
Condemning a person to prison or taking money from either a citizen or a corporation is a serious matter, not something for anyone with limited knowledge of either the English language or American ways to decide.
The bottom line: Like many other bills proposed in the Legislature and then disposed of, this is a terrible idea and ought to be consigned to the lawmaking trash can, the sooner the better.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org