Citizens who don't speak English have right to serve as jurors, New Mexico Supreme Court says

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Judges and lawyers have a shared responsibility to make reasonable efforts to protect the right of non-English speaking citizens to serve as jurors, the New Mexico Supreme Court says.

The court issued that warning in an opinion that nonetheless upheld a defendant’s murder conviction after a judge excused a Spanish-speaking prospective juror. The dismissal violated the state constitution, the court said, but the error was not fundamental and did not require reversal. The Associated Press has a story, and How Appealing links to the Aug. 12 opinion (PDF).

According to the trial judge, an interpreter had been requested to assist in voir dire, but mistakenly ended up in another courtroom. After voir dire, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking potential juror if he had understood the questioning, and the potential juror said he had not understood a large part of it.

A defense lawyer objected to the potential juror’s dismissal on the ground that he understood English well enough to participate in voir dire. The lawyer, however, did not protest the lawful basis for dismissal. The judge then dismissed the potential juror, concluding that he was not able to participate in voir dire in a meaningful way.

The New Mexico Supreme Court said it has previously recognized that the state constitution “unambiguously protects the rights of non-English speakers to serve on our state juries.” The judge’s failure to try to find an interpreter before dismissing the potential juror violated the constitution, the court said.

The court ruled in the case of Michael Anthony Samora of Albuquerque, convicted in the 2004 bludgeoning death of his girlfriend.

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