SACRAMENTO — The state Assembly on Thursday passed a bill that would make California the first state 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, live in the county that is making the summons and being proficient in English.
The bill passed 45-25 largely on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly and will move on to the Senate. One Democrat — Assemblyman Adam Gray, of Merced — voted no, while other Democrats did not vote.
Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bill said there is no correlation between being a citizen and a juror, and they noted that there is no citizenship requirement to be an attorney or a judge. But Republican lawmakers who opposed Wieckowski’s bill called it misguided and premature.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said there is no shortage of jurors.
“Jury selection is not the problem. The problem is trial court funding,” Harkey said before the vote. “I hope we can focus on that. Let’s not break something; it’s not broken now. Let’s not whittle away at what is reserved for U.S. citizens. There’s a reason for it.”
Wieckowski’s office said the bill is the first of such kind in the nation and suggested that courts regularly struggle to find enough prospective jurors because jury duty is often seen as an “inconvenience, if not a burden.” His office did not cite any statistics but pointed to a 2003 legislative report that said numerous articles have noted high rates of non-participation.
California’s top judge has urged lawmakers to ensure equal access to justice by reinvesting in a court system that has been hit with years of budget cuts. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye noted that the court budget has been reduced by more than $1 billion over the last five budget years, which has resulted in fewer courtrooms, higher fees and delayed repairs and construction on a number of buildings.
A message left for the Judicial Council, which administers the state’s court system, was not immediately returned Thursday.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said just as women were once kept off juries, 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.”