Getting called for jury duty evokes feelings ranging from "Oh no, not again" to "How can I get out of it?" to "Great! Maybe I can miss work for a couple weeks."
In any case, the jury system is a cornerstone of the U.S. legal system. And in all 50 states, only U.S. citizens can serve on juries. But one of the bills on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk would make California the first state where noncitizens are eligible for jury service.
"There's no compelling reason why they should automatically be disqualified," says Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont). The Bay Area Democrat chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee and is the sponsor of AB1401. He says his bill to expand the jury pool by including permanent legal residents makes sense in a state with more than 3 million green card holders.
"They're permanently here," Wieckowski says. "Their participation makes the deliberations and the legitimacy of the decisions that they come to that much better."
Wieckowski's bill passed the Legislature without a single Republican vote. And the process left a lot to be desired, says Oceanside Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.
"The last day of session, the last closing hours, we have a bill being pushed from the Senate over to the Assembly never being vetted or talked about at all anywhere on the Assembly floor," the Republican complains. He says the bill tries to solve a problem that doesn't exist. "There's no shortage of potential jurors who are citizens," he says. And Chavez sees the whole thing as a political wedge issue.
"It's clear to me that it eventually gets down to the issue of immigration and the intent to paint Republicans who are against immigrants."
But supporters of AB1401, including Wieckowski, see it as a matter of fairness and discrimination, a logical step toward ensuring that juries reflect the entire population. The assemblyman points out that back in the 1950s when the film "12 Angry Men" came out, women were often missing from juries. He sees opening the jury pool to green card holders as a logical next step in making juries more inclusive.
But professor John Eastman, at Chapman University Law School in Orange County, doesn't see it that way at all. Eastman thinks the country's founders envisioned juries composed strictly of citizens -- a way for them to check the power of government. "And the notion that we would allow noncitizens to perform that duty is no different than saying we should allow noncitizens to perform the basics of voting and determine the direction of government," Eastman says. "It's that important."
In a San Francisco courtroom this week, Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin was overseeing jury selection for a murder trial.
"What we're going to do right now is we're going to actually put 12 or 24 people into what we call the jury box, or the box," Tsenin advises from the bench. The pool is a very diverse group, including Latinos, Asians and African-Americans. All of them are citizens.
Before she questions them, Tsenin explains the examination of prospective jurors known as voir dire. "It's a process of selecting a fair and unbiased and unprejudiced jury," she says. "And that's why we need your honest responses."
They answer questions about race, attitudes toward police and the criminal justice system, and whether they've ever been discriminated against.
Critics of AB1401 say noncitizens might not share American values. That could matter, they argue, in trials where juries consider issues like domestic violence, the role of women or the importance of questioning authority.
But supporters of the change say the jury selection process gives attorneys and judges a voice in who sits in the jury box, allowing them to screen out prospective jurors who might not be open-minded or fair.
UCLA immigration law professor Hiroshi Motomura adds that the bill would give noncitizens in the legal system a stronger sense of being judged by their peers.
"The problem that this bill would solve in some communities," says Motomura, "is in cases where the jury doesn't really look like the community, so it may undermine a fair trial."
So what about green card holders -- how do they feel about the prospect of jury duty?
Eleonore Zwinger came to the U.S. 14 years ago from Germany, where questions of the law are settled by legal experts: There is no jury system. An attorney by training, Zwinger questions whether ordinary people, with little or no legal training, have the skills to make good jurors.
"If I were called (for jury duty) I would do what I was required to do, but I wouldn't be behind it with my full heart,” Swinger says.
But Abdiel Oñate disagrees. A native of Mexico, the San Francisco State University history professor sees jury duty as a chance for legal residents to participate more fully in civic activities -- with long-term benefits.
"When you apply for citizenship, then you will see you have performed already the obligations and know what citizenship requires," Oñate says. "Not only do you have rights, but obligations also (as) a citizen."
The question now is: How does Jerry Brown see jury service -- as an obligation, a right or a privilege that should be reserved only for U.S. citizens? And what exactly does "a jury of your peers mean?" The governor has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the bill.