Legislation working its way through the State Capitol has sparked considerable debate in law schools and coffee shops across the state on a fundamental question – should non-citizens be allowed to serve on juries?

The measure, Assembly Bill 1401 (Wieckowski) would authorize legal immigrants to serve on juries in both civil and criminal trials.  It was recently approved by Democrats in the State Assembly on a partisan vote, and is now being considered by the State Senate.

Listening to the debate, I was very disappointed to see partisanship and the politics of immigration have clouded what I believe should be a very serious constitutional discussion.

For me, the question of whether non-citizens should serve on juries is separate from the debate we’re having in California over state services provided to undocumented immigrants or the federal immigration reform proposals being considered right now in Washington.

This is not a measure that’s being clamored for by judges up and down the state.  No one has made the case that California has a shortage of jurors.  So why is this legislation being pushed in the first place?  I believe that it’s about partisan politics, pure and simple.

In my view, this is a debate about the rule of law in our country.  The Constitution, federal law, and our state’s legal traditions are clear – only United States citizens may serve as a juror judging their peers.

The current California code of civil procedure – which sets forth the rules and procedures by which civil courts conduct their business – speaks clearly on the issue of citizen participation in jury trials.  Section 191 states that, “the Legislature recognizes that trial by jury is a cherished constitutional right, and that jury service is an obligation of citizenship.”

United States Code also makes it clear that only United States citizens may serve on a jury in a federal trial:  “[A]ny person [shall be deemed] qualified to serve on grand and petit juries in the district court unless he is not a citizen of the United States.”  In fact, not a single state authorizes a non-citizen to serve on its juries.

I know that many people dread receiving jury notifications in the mail.  While it may be inconvenient for some to take time out to weigh the merits of a case, I believe that jury service is a duty for all Americans.  In my mind, it is just as sacred a responsibility as casting a ballot in every election.

Serving as a member is one act where citizens truly have the power to decide for themselves the fate of how government power will be used, whether someone will be found guilty or innocent, whether an individual will get a slap on the wrist or have the book thrown at them.

Remember that millions of brave men and women throughout our history have given their lives to protect the rights enjoyed by all Americans.  This includes the right to a fair jury trial determined by a jury of their peers – their fellow American citizens, who owe their allegiance to the United States and not another country.

Needlessly tinkering with our jury eligibility rules to fulfill a political agenda may, in my view, deny the accused the right to a fair trial that is the cornerstone of our judicial system.