New Mexico Supreme Court Rules That Non-English Speaking Citizens Cannot Be Excluded From Juries

250px-Jury_box_croppedThe New Mexico Supreme Court has attracted considerable attention this week with its ruling in the State of New Mexico v. Samora where it ruled that courts could not exclude jurors who did not speak English. Michael Anthony Samora was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes for the bludgeoning death of his girlfriend and a subsequent robbery and stabbing at an Albuquerque convenience store. He appealed on the grounds that a juror was excluded because he could not follow the proceedings in English. The Court agreed but found that the error did not deny him a fair trial.

The Court previously indicated that interpreters had to be supplied to non-English speaking jurors and this judge actually tried to accommodate the Spanish-speaking juror. Here is how the Court described the actions of the lower court:

Defendant’s appeal is based primarily on the dismissal of Mr. Rojelio Haros from Defendant’s jury pool. During voir dire, the district court noted that Mr. Haros had written in his jury questionnaire that he did not “understand English [well] enough to write in English” and asked him if he understood English well enough to proceed with jury selection without the aid of an interpreter, stating that the interpreter that had been requested by the court mistakenly ended up in another courtroom. When Mr. Haros stated that he had been able to follow the discussions to that point, the court promised to provide an interpreter should Mr. Haros be selected as a juror.
At the conclusion of voir dire, when the court asked Mr. Haros if he had been able to follow the voir dire exchanges, Mr. Haros admitted that there was a large part of it that he had not understood. When the court proposed to excuse Mr. Haros for cause, defense counsel objected, not because the inability to understand English could not provide a lawful basis for dismissal but on the theory that Mr. Haros understood English well enough to serve without an interpreter during voir dire. The State argued that Mr. Haros should be removed. The court ultimately dismissed Mr. Haros, concluding that Mr. Haros had been unable to participate in voir dire in a meaningful way.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the trial court should have done more and located an interpreter because Article VII, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution guarantees that “[t]he right of any citizen of the state to . . . sit upon juries, shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired on account of . . . [the] inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages except as may be otherwise provided in this constitution.” That does appear pretty clear though the Court has previously stated that the rule requires a showing of reasonable efforts to accommodate the non-English speaking juror.

The Court found that the trial judge did not do enough and that the proceedings should have been halted until an interpreter could be found:

Here, . . . Defendant’s trial took place in the Second Judicial District Court, the most populous district in our state, where a Spanish interpreter should have been readily available. At a minimum, voir dire should have been continued until the misdirected interpreter was brought to the correct court or a replacement interpreter secured. See id. ¶ 15 (noting that when “the language for which an interpreter is needed is one commonly spoken in the jurisdiction, particularly when it is one in which interpreters are specially trained, and no interpreter is available on the first scheduled day of the trial, the trial should be continued for a reasonable time in order to secure an interpreter”).

The state Constitution in this case obviously controlled the analysis. The question is whether the state should amend the Constitution to eliminate the reference to juries. The issue reignited the debate over whether English should be treated or recognized as the national language and that all citizens, particularly new citizens, should have to master the language as a condition of citizenship.

Even short of such an official recognition, there remains the question of whether courts should reasonably be forced to have interpreters for non-English speaking jurors. Presumably, a jury could have multiple different language needs for such interpreters. These jurors would not only add to the burden of the trial courts but could make jury deliberations more difficult. Additionally, there remains the issue of a third party’s interpretation of statements and how it might affect an outcome after being filtered through an interpreter. In the rapid and often heated discussions of a jury room, an interpreter is likely to summarize statements. On the other hand, absent such an accommodation, non-English jurors would get an effective pass from jury duty and exclude these citizens from an important civic function.

What do you think?

Here is the opinion: SC32,597

25 thoughts on “New Mexico Supreme Court Rules That Non-English Speaking Citizens Cannot Be Excluded From Juries”

  1. DavidH: As far as the law is concerned, there is no official language of this country, as far as I am aware. There is no official religion, either.

    So the fact that English is the predominant language in this country is no different than Christianity (in some sect or another) being the predominant religion; part of our freedom is the right to choose, including whether we want to learn English, or be Christian.

    To All:

    As for this case, I think a trained translator can be provided. We trust trained lawyers to represent us and do not worry much about what is lost in their “translation” into legalese our positions. A trained or certified translator can be expected to stick to standards that prevent any losses in translation there, too.

    One of my friends is a Chinese-English translator (for businesses) and her training (by a large international company, originally) required her to take classes to learn business-specific and contract-specific translations “properly.” I think if a bilingual person wants a court job as a translator, some training could ensure sufficient accuracy in translation to alleviate the concerns about the use of a translator.

    After all, if the defendant only spoke Spanish, wouldn’t that mean most of the jury would be hearing a translation of their testimony? Or should we seat an all-Spanish-speaking jury, judge, prosecutor and defense attorney?

Comments are closed.