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N.M. Jurors Don't Have to Speak English: Court

By Brett Snider, Esq. on August 18, 2013 11:01 AM

The New Mexico Supreme Court has affirmed that jurors do not need to speak English, following the dismissal of a juror with limited English skills from a criminal jury.

Non-English speakers have a constitutional right in New Mexico to serve on juries, according to the high court, and both attorneys and judges are charged with protecting those citizens' rights, regardless of English competence, reports Reuters.

How did the court reach this conclusion, and is this the case for jurors in all states?

Juror Dismissed for Poor English

During voir dire, or jury selection, for a murder trial, a prospective juror was dismissed in light of the assertion that he didn't "understand English [well] enough to write in English" and didn't fully understand the voir dire proceedings.

The defendant was convicted, but later appealed, arguing the judge had made a mistake in dismissing the non-English-proficient citizen from the jury pool.

New Mexico's Supreme Court examined the issue and agreed, but determined the mistake wasn't enough to get the conviction overturned.

Still, the court explained, dismissing the juror had violated the New Mexico Constitution. Article VII, Section 3 of the state's constitution protects the right of a citizen to sit on a jury, free from discrimination based on the ability to "read or write" the English language.

English Language Requirements

Much like the federal and state requirements for voting, New Mexico does not require jurors to be able to read or write English in order to exercise their civic duties.

Some states, however, like Missouri and Iowa, have explicitly required jurors to "read, speak, and understand the English language" in order to serve on a jury. And there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents them from doing so.

There have been a few attempts by civil rights litigators to strike down these English-only juror policies as national origin discrimination, but these suits have been hit or miss, depending on the state.

Although there is still no nationwide legal standard for English competency and jury service in state courts, New Mexico has now made it clear that it will accommodate all residents eligible for jury duty, regardless of their English-language skills.

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