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. Keep those gates open! They just want a better life and to assimilate into
    our society. Oh, and business could use their business, and teens no longer want to mow lawns, and dad’s not gonna THAT these days.

  2. New Mexico Supreme Court Rulers are the republic of New Mexico and are they not supposed to protect American citizens? Shouldn’t all Americans speak English, our country language? All the Public Employees should have term limits.

  3. I think a language helps unite a country. I do not feel I am being racist or bigoted (and those here who know me know from my comments I am a progressive democrat). When I visited Brazil I tried to speak their language. (Ironically they all wanted me to use English to help them learn it). Grandmothers who came here and never learned the language still made sure that their kids and grandkids learned thelanguage but I am not sure that is still the case. (I hope Im wrong)
    As for a translator how many times is the response to “It says (thus and so in the Bible) “In which translation?”
    I think that would apply in a courtroom or juryroom as well.

  4. I’m going to surprise everyone and say that, as difficult as it is for me, I have to agree with David.

    I am fluent in both German and Italian (music background). However, I would never presume to act as a translator for a Court proceeding. It’s true, as many have pointed out, all language is idiomatic and idioms don’t translate well if at all. Where I differ with David is I see no reason NOT to have a translator WHO IS A NATIVE SPEAKER (sorry for the caps. I never could get the italics to work) not someone who learned the other language in the classroom for the reason above.

    Living in Arizona as I do, this is as much a question in my state as in New Mexico. However, I don’t see what would be wrong with declaring English as our national language. Let’s face it. If one were to go to school in, say, Mexico City, the classes would be taught in Spanish, business and governmental functions would all be carried out in Spanish, and it would be your responsibility to learn Spanish. In France, the population is extremely diverse, yet were you to attend the Sorbonne, I can guarantee that the only course that would be taught in English (or Spanish, or German) would be courses to learn those languages. Same with any legal proceedings. A lawsuit is not going to be heard in English if the Court is in, say, Rome. Remember the Eichmann trial in Israel? If you watch any of the film from them you will see that the defendant didn’t have a translator with him. He had earphones to translate from Hebrew to English, and when he spoke the reverse was true.

  5. Not that I don’t agree that this is a significant issue. However, there is an additional wrinkle. Say the defendant and/or a significant witness speaks only another language. In that case, all the arguments about language nuances would suggest that jurors speaking that language would be a benefit. But then the jurors will have heard different testimony (Those who spoke only english would be considering the translator’s version, while those who understood the language would be hearing the witness’ own words. Or will the non-english speaking jurors be required to disregard their understanding of the witness’ actual testimony and base their consideratiton on their own translator’s translation of the witness’ translator’s translation.

  6. “… and on both sides the last names didn’t sound particularly Jewish.” Ironic that this would appear in an attempt to define another as bigoted.

  7. The NM State Constitution was written in 1911. It worked quite well with English-Spanish juries and trials until far right activist judges decided that it was time to change a law that was written in such a way that 75% of a vote of the must be required to change it. The requirement was part of NM becoming a state. Strange how it only bothers people who are hard line anti-immigration activists. Doesn’t bother enough of us here in NM to even consider changing it.

    The Pink Flamingo

  8. I know the argument, what if the defendant doesn’t speak the language of the culture. We provide translators. The same for a witness. But, English is our language. I have never seen the reason of declaring it our official language. A decision like this could change my mind.

  9. Separating the wheat from the chaff I don’t believe that the use of an interpreter for a juror would be either fair, or proper. As Inavukic says “things do get lost in translation.” So in my opinion when it comes to jury trials it should be a basic expectation that each juror can understand fully the testimony and arguments taking place.

    The chaff of this discussion was supplied by David H as usual as he again expresses his political view rather than arguing the merits.

    “Is it really unjust discrimination against someone to expect them to learn to speak the language of the country?”

    All I can think of David when someone makes a statement like yours is my two Grandmothers who spoke Yiddish primarily until the day they died. To fully converse with them one had to also speak Yiddish. Both had come to this country as very young women. Each gave birth to nine children who all led productive lives as citizens of this country and produced a multitude of highly educated children, who also led productive lives. Now of course they were considered White and on both sides the last names didn’t sound particularly Jewish. However, in their time the fact that they and their family were Jewish did result in much hatred and often violence as my father told it.

    The English Speaking requirement is yet another expression of the bigotry towards those of Latino origin and permeates the “anti-immigrationists.” Like many of your opinions expressed here it is couched with what on the surface seems reasonable, but its underbelly is bigotry. This is evident because while we both agree that a juror must be able to fully understand the proceedings, you make your statement above into the universal.

  10. visitor, Plus, there are nuances in our vernacular that do not translate to other languages. A language is an integral part of any culture. And, to be able to decide whether to take a defendant’s freedom, deny a person just payment, etc. it is imperative that they be judged by “their PEERS.” One is not a PEER if they do not share the same language.

  11. I think it is a bad idea because a common language is needed in order to ensure the jury does its function by conveying ideas among members.
    here’s the reasons:

    1)A translator could either slow the debates or lose crucial informations (here, how “malice” get defined for a 1st-degree murder) in translation.
    2)If a translator isn’t available, then the non english-speaking juror might get lost during procedings and debates.

    Such situation might, consequently, cause the reversal of several rulings.

  12. If you want a jury of peers, you have to take everyone, even those who do not speak the way you want them to. Interpreters are used in many instances in public and professional life. Court should be no different, given its ability to deny freedom. If this places a burden on the court, so be it.

    New Mexico got this right.

  13. Disaster of an idea. Things/concepts get terribly lost in translations. Very unsafe practice for jury duty. Can the idea as it will bring no justice (and justice is so hard to get when everyone speaks the same language anyway)

  14. Common sense is going the way of honor in our slowly diminishing culture.

  15. I’m thinking under the due process and fundamental rights to a fair trial the court got the right result but for the wrong reasons….. There is already enough problems with a court trial…. Add in an interpreter for a juror…. Come on…. Something amiss in this babel on…..

  16. I don’t understand what would be wrong with courts defining our official language and expecting all citizens to learn that language. Can someone explain to me what is the drawback in doing this? Is it really unjust discrimination against someone to expect them to learn to speak the language of the country? If I moved to Germany, I wouldn’t feel unjustly discriminated against because they expected me to learn German.

  17. Deaf jurors…..
    Court signers?

    Deaf blind Creole-speaking jurors…….
    Creole-speaking Braille stenographer?

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