The passage of an Assembly bill that would stick noncitizens with jury duty ignited a party-line war of words at the Capitol this week.

The passage of an Assembly bill that would stick noncitizens with jury duty ignited a party-line war of words at the Capitol this week.

California Assembly passes non-citizen juror bill amid controversy

Each year, 164,000 Californians serve on a jury out of 10 million who are summoned, according to the California Judicial Council. With a dramatic set of filters to get down to the final number, a larger pool of potential jurors sounds like a good thing. While the council wasn’t consulted about the proposal, on this past Wednesday, the California Assembly passed a bill to allow “lawfully present immigrants” to serve on juries. The vote was 45-25 along party lines with Democrats supporting the measure.

Currently in California (and in every other state), only U.S. citizens can be jurors.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, ?D-Watsonville, proposed the bill, which leaves intact all other requirements that jurors speak English, be impartial and be Californians over the age of 18.

The legislative analysis of the bill noted that noncitizens can be judges and attorneys and witnesses in legal cases — it is only the juror function that they can’t perform. Noncitizens must also pay income taxes and register for the draft, and can enlist in the U.S. military.

During the debate in the Assembly, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, sputtered a flimsy opposition to the measure, giving the entirely uncompelling old “that’s the way we’ve always done it” argument.

“It’s just one of those items that is reserved for citizens of the United States and I think it should remain so,” Harkey said. Then she added, “Let’s not whittle away at what is reserved for U.S. citizens; there’s a reason for it,” without ever stating what that reason is.

Both Harkey and Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, claimed that juror names come from voter rolls, as if that was a reason to oppose the measure. (If that were true, then there’s nothing to worry about because noncitizens can’t vote and thus no noncitizen could ever be called as a juror.)

But their contention about voter rolls isn’t even true. Teresa Ruano, spokeswoman at the Judicial Council, confirmed that the names of potential jurors come from a combination of records from the Department of Motor Vehicles and voter registration.

At least Donnelly made an attempt to give some lip service to immigrants, saying they are “essentially who we are as a country.” But, according to Donnelly, if we demand that legal noncitizens serve as jurors, then it cheapens the importance of citizenship. It would mean, “that prize of American citizenship really isn’t worthy of grasping.” As if people become citizens so they can serve on a jury — something that citizens have made a sport and science of ?avoiding.

Recognizing that jury duty isn’t a popular pastime, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, demanded to know, “Are there people who are living here who are not citizens desiring this responsibility?” Apparently the Republicans failed to get their stories straight ahead of time — is being a juror a prize or an albatross?

Actually, it’s both. And if non-citizens who are lawfully in the United States meet the qualifications to be a juror, they should have to serve or lie and try to get out of it. Just like the rest of us.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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