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Calif. Gov. Debates Changing Who's Eligible For Jury Duty


In the United States of America, jury duty is one of the obligations of a citizen. And in California, it may soon be an obligation for more than just citizens. Gov. Jerry Brown may sign a bill that the state legislature passed recently. The law would allow permanent residents in California to sit on juries, even when they're not citizens. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Ah, jury duty. There are scores of standup routines on how to evade it. Here's "Late Show" host David Letterman with one of his lame excuses.


DAVID LETTERMAN: That's when I came up with that dry scalp thing.


PAUL SHAFFER: It was you!

MERAJI: If you don't think dry scalp will work and you're itching to avoid jury duty, there are also plenty of how-to videos online.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Step one, you may have a legitimate reason and not even know it. If you are over 70 years old, do not understand English...

MERAJI: And for California couples like...

SAFIR BELLALI: Safir Bellali...

PATRICIA BELLALI: Patricia Bellali...

MERAJI: ...where one partner is a citizen and the other isn't...

SAFIR BELLALI: My wife is an American citizen, and I'm a legal resident.

MERAJI: Well, let's just say Safir loves to tease his wife about one right that comes with her citizenship - getting that jury duty summons.

PATRICIA BELLALI: When I get that notice in the mail, you know, it's not something that I look forward to, but putting things in perspective, it definitely is a privilege because you get to have a say in the whole judicial process.

SAFIR BELLALI: She's been getting those notices about twice a year, so every time I see that letter, I have to laugh.

MERAJI: California state assemblyman Bob Wieckowski believes that legal residents shouldn't be laughing. They should be reporting for jury duty.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN BOB WIECKOWSKI: It's part of your obligation that you're permanently here, living in California and part of our society.

MERAJI: Wieckowski's a Democrat who represents Freemont, California, a region with a good number of legal permanent residents from Asia. He sponsored the bill that would give legal residents the right to serve on juries. Nowhere in the U.S. is a non citizen allowed to be a juror, but Wieckowski says California is a great place to start.

WIECKOWSKI: Just because we've always done something doesn't mean that we can't change it to improve it. We have 3.4 million permanent legal immigrants, the people that would be available to serve on the jury. That's like nine percent of our population.

MERAJI: And adding the legal residents, says Wieckowski, would help create a true jury of our peers. He says 15 percent of people who receive a summons don't respond, period. So it's also a way to widen the jury pool. Ruben Navarrette lives in San Diego and is not a fan of Wieckowski's bill. So much so, he wrote about it in his syndicated column.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: So they contrive this argument that says, OK, Ruben, who is a U.S. citizen and should go to jury duty when he gets a summons in the mail, he's not going to. Rather than punish Ruben, what we'll do is we'll create a whole other system to allow somebody to come take Ruben's place. You know, it's interesting. We always have this debate on whether we're too hard in immigrants.

The example I just gave you shows you the truth. The problem is we're too easy on Americans.

MERAJI: And Safir Bellali, the permanent resident we met earlier, he doesn't think he should be forced to judge people based on laws made by politicians he can't vote for.

SAFIR BELLALI: If you're gonna afford someone the right to vote for whoever signs the laws, than it is OK and, you know, they should be involved in judging their peers.

MERAJI: Speaking of law signing, Belali and other legal residents won't have to report for jury duty unless California Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill. He's got until early October to make his decision.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.
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