Ron Kaye: An idea whose time hasn't come

My head spun when I heard Democrats with their super-majority in the state Assembly slammed through a bill that would make California the only state in the nation to let immigrants, legal ones, sit on juries.

I thought, "What has America come to when, so soon after the Boston Marathon massacre, we want someone like Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a juror?"

But before I could get my outrage heated up, I found Katy Grimes, a writer on the conservative Cal Watchdog website, already had used the Tsarnaev line and concluded, "If you weren't outraged over the previous bills affording illegal immigrants' rights and liberties previously reserved for American citizens, AB 1401 should convince you that this Legislature is hell-bent on eroding what's left of California."

I've long supported immigrant rights and a pathway to citizenship, in no small part because it's crazy to have millions of people without identities or records living among us while we spend trillions on measures to make us feel safe.

It passeth all my understanding why Democrats would exercise their absolute power to revolutionize the jury system ahead of all their other agendas: fix the schools, repair the infrastructure, ban cars, abolish corporations — there are so many true-blue targets of greater importance.

As much as we hate serving on juries, or even voting, I had to wonder whether we've gotten to the point that we want immigrants to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens.

As an intrepid pursuer of truth — or at least explanations that might be true — I started calling and emailing Assembly members who might shed some light on this mysterious move, starting with local Democrats who had voted for it.

Mike Gatto: Never heard back, maybe because I wrote some things he didn't like.

Bob Blumenfield: Never heard back, maybe because I called him "2JobBob" for simultaneously running for re-election to the Assembly and for the L.A. City Council.

There were others as well, but nobody could provide any worthwhile insights, not even an aide to Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced, the only Democrat who joined Republicans in voting against this bill. Gray took one look at it and thought it was nonsense — nothing to do with being a freshman from an overwhelmingly Republican district that almost never elects a Democrat.

I spoke with Assemblyman Don Wagner, a Republican from Tustin and vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee who was as concerned about the legislative process itself.

AB 1401 came out of nowhere, he said, as a "committee bill" without an individual sponsor, but it was done in violation of long-established protocols that such bills are bipartisan and technical in nature — not partisan and radical changes that require study and debate.

When Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Wieckowksi of Fremont called, he spoke at length about how hard it is to get people to serve as jurors (a point disputed by court officials), how women and blacks were once denied the right to serve as jurors, how there are a lot of smart immigrants and dumb citizens.

He quoted the great 19th-century observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who noted how jury duty teaches people about justice and equality and is "the very best way of preparing people to be free," and so on.

I tried to get him to bite on De Tocqueville's key warning about American democracy, the danger of a tyranny of the majority inflicting its will on a minority, but he kept on rattling off reasons why this was an idea whose time has come.

So I scoured the Internet looking for pros and cons and the best I could find was the L.A. Times editorial calling it an "ingenious … interesting idea" but "in the end would move California in the wrong direction" — perhaps an idea whose time has not yet come.

The LA Weekly thought it was funny that juries made up of "the unemployed, retirees and neighborhood busy bodies" would be replaced by juries "of the people who sell used cars, wash dishes and twirl signs on street corners" — a comment that was clearly condescending and suggestive of latent racism.

It seemed like I was the only one shocked, clearly out of step with the mainstream. The only clue to what this was about came from the floor debate in which Speaker John Perez said everyone deserves a jury of 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."

Immigrant juries for immigrant defendants — that's what justice for all seems to have come to mean.

Maybe when the Senate considers AB 1401, it will take it to logical absurdity: Shouldn't women have all-women juries, men all-men, gays all-gays, rich all-rich, criminals all-criminals?

Juries of our peers, justice for all — you've got to be kidding. This is California, not America.

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RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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