Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) is seen addressing the Assembly… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Assembly Democrats may have hit on an ingenious way to make citizens take their jury summonses more seriously: Last week they passed a bill that would allow noncitizens to serve on juries. Suddenly, outraged commentators and bloggers who feared the loss of a key measure of citizenship were referring to "jury service" instead of "jury duty." Although the news was generally reported accurately, some went overboard; at foxnews.com, for example, the headline said: "California bill would let illegal immigrants serve on juries."
No it wouldn't. This isn't a story about yet one more unsavory job that must be done by undocumented immigrants because U.S. citizens won't do it. AB 1401 by Democrat Bob Wieckowski of Fremont would not extend any new powers or duties to anyone without the legal right to be present in the country. It would, however, allow courts to call lawful permanent residents who are not citizens to serve on juries. After all, you don't have to be a citizen to be a lawyer or a judge in Superior Court; why, lawmakers asked, should you have to be a citizen to serve on a jury?
It's an important question — and there is an answer.
Jury service is not burdensome drudge work imposed by an overbearing government on an unwilling citizenry. Nor is it a favor that citizens do for their courts. To the contrary, it is a citizen's chief means of oversight on the judicial branch, allowing him or her not merely to help rule on the facts of a particular case but to keep tabs on the judge, the prosecutors, the public defenders and the court system itself. It's the place where citizens observe firsthand the effect of court budget cuts.
Just as citizens, and only citizens, have the power to elect their executive branch leaders and their delegates to the legislative branch, citizen jurors have the final check on at least some judicial branch decisions. Yes, we can vote judges out of office, but especially with a court system the size of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, it is difficult at best to know who they are and how they work. Jury duty, or rather jury service — or even better, jury power — is a reminder that the government works for us, and not the other way around.
That check on government is a right and a duty properly exercised by the sovereign, and in a democracy that means the citizens. Plenty of noncitizens make up our society, but citizenship is the norm, as it should be. And if we find that an overwhelming number of residents, workers and taxpayers are not citizens, it should not be seen as a signal to redistribute the powers of citizenship, but rather to step up the speed at which those who want to be fully incorporated into society are naturalized. AB 1401 is an interesting idea, but in the end it would move California in the wrong direction.