Noncitizens on juries? It's still a bad idea

Bob Wieckowski, Rod Wright

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) lobbies Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) to vote for his bill during the 2012 Senate session. During the current session, Wieckowski is pressing his bill to extend jury duty to noncitizen immigrants. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / August 28, 2012)

In the final days before their legislative deadline, lawmakers approved a bill that would allow some noncitizens to serve as jurors. AB 1401 is now in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The bill applies to lawful permanent immigrants -- people with what used to be known as "green cards." They need have no intention of becoming citizens.

When AB 1401 began its journey through the Capitol, The Times' editorial page weighed in against it. We still oppose it.

"Just as citizens, and only citizens, have the power to elect their executive branch leaders and their delegates to the legislative branch," we wrote, "citizen jurors have the final check on at least some judicial branch decisions....

"That check on government is a right and a duty properly exercised by the sovereign, and in a democracy that means the citizens."

Wait a minute. The supposedly liberal Los Angeles Times is against expanding a right (or a duty) of noncitizen immigrants? The editorial page that urges humane, pragmatic and swift immigration reform wants to keep immigrants off juries? When did the Times go all tea party?

The question of the powers and duties of U.S. citizens transcends the right-left divide. Citizenship has a purpose. It should be encouraged. And there is, and there should be, a difference between what is accorded to and expected from citizens versus noncitizens. If jury duty is a government's burdensome exaction of time and attention from people, it is an exaction that falls to those people who enjoy the particular benefits of citizenship. Unlike taxes, which are owed by anyone (a business or partnership as well as an individual, a noncitizen as well as a citizen) who buys taxable goods, owns taxable property or earns taxable revenue regardless of citizenship status, jury duty is an obligation owed, at least until now, exclusively by members of the club -- the citizens.

But it's certainly true that others might easily draw the line elsewhere and argue that if any customer, property owner or earner owes taxes to the government to give it funds to do its work, that person, citizen or noncitizen, also can be seen to owe time on a jury -- or in the military, for that matter -- to render unto government the personal service that government claims to need. We wouldn't draw that line there, but some would. The Legislature would, for example.

The Times actually contends something quite different: That rather than jury duty being seen as an exaction, it is in part a form of oversight over a branch of government. And like voting, that oversight is the obligation and power of citizens and only citizens. Begin outsourcing that obligation and you begin ceding ownership of government.

Critics of The Times on the right who are disoriented by our approach to citizenship and jury duty and think we might not be so bad after all should note: Our editorial made plain that if there were too many people waiting in line to be naturalized and not enough citizens willing to serve as jurors, one answer would be to step up the pace of naturalization.

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