NM Supreme Court reaffirms right of non-English speakers to serve on juries

One of today’s headlines at Drudge Report is “You can serve on jury even if you don’t understand english” (sic), referring to yesterday’s decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in State v. Samora, which reaffirmed that proposition.

Juror service by non-English speakers is, however, not sensational news around here. After all, when the United States wrested control of the Land of Enchantment from Mexico back in the 1840s, the vast majority of New Mexico’s residents spoke Spanish or Native American languages. There was no practical alternative but to include non-English speakers on juries, and their right to serve is now enshrined in Article VII, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution, which provides that the right of a citizen to serve on a jury “shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired on account of … [the] inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages….”

The New Mexico Supreme Court has previously held that a district court judge must make “every reasonable effort” to make it possible for a non-English speaking juror to serve, chiefly by making arrangements to secure an interpreter.

In this case, as Justice Daniels’ opinion explains, the district court’s efforts were not satisfactory.

During jury selection before the defendant’s trial for murder, one juror indicated that he spoke Spanish and was having a hard time understanding the voir dire proceedings. Apparently, an interpreter had been sent for, but went to the wrong courtroom. The trial judge excused the juror for cause, apparently without making any other efforts to secure an interpreter.

This mistake did not, however, help the defendant, Mr. Samora, who was convicted of bludgeoning his girlfriend to death. Defense counsel objected to the juror’s excusal, but argued only that the juror could understand English well enough to serve. Defense counsel did not raise the claim that the juror had a constitutional right to serve even if he did not speak English. For that reason, the error was waived, and the Supreme Court further held that the error did not constitute fundamental error of the sort that requires reversal even without an objection.

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