SACRAMENTO -- The California Assembly passed a bill on Thursday that would make the state the first in the nation to allow noncitizens who are in the country legally to serve on jury duty.
Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said his bill, AB 1401, would help California widen the pool of prospective jurors and help integrate immigrants into the community.
It does not change other criteria for being eligible to serve on a jury, such as being at least 18, living in the county that is making the summons and being proficient in English.
The bill passed 45-25 largely on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly and will move on to the Senate. One Democrat -- Assemblyman Adam Gray, of Merced -- voted no, while some other Democrats did not vote.
Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bill said there is no correlation between being a citizen and a juror, and they noted that there is no citizenship requirement to be an attorney or a judge. Republican lawmakers who opposed Wieckowski's bill called it misguided and premature.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said there is no shortage of jurors.
"Jury selection is not the problem. The problem is trial court funding," Harkey said before the vote. "I hope we can focus on that. Let's not break something; it's not broken now. Let's not whittle away at what is reserved for U.S. citizens. There's a reason for it."
Wieckowski's office said the bill is the first of its kind in the nation and suggested that courts regularly struggle to find enough prospective jurors because jury duty is often seen as an inconvenience, if not a burden. His office did not cite any statistics but pointed to a 2003 legislative report that said numerous articles have noted high rates of nonparticipation.
A 2007 survey by the Center for Jury Studies said 20 percent of courts across the country reported a failure to respond or failure to appear rate of 15 percent or higher. The center is run by the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to improving court systems.
It's not clear, however, if that rate translates to a shortage of jurors in California.
Noting that women were once kept off juries, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said the judicial system should be changed to allow a person to be judged by their peers.
"This isn't about affording someone who would come in as a juror something," Perez said. "But rather understanding that the importance of the jury selection process of affording justice to the person in that courtroom."
An estimated 10 million Californians are summoned for jury duty each year and about 4 million are eligible and available to serve, according to the Judicial Council, which administers the state's court system. About 3.2 million complete the service, meaning they waited in a courthouse assembly room or were placed on call.
In 2010-11, the most recent year available, only about 165,000 people were sworn in as jurors.
The judicial branch has not taken a position on AB 1401.