This is, as Charles Cooke notes, actually the correct decision. The court didn’t manufacture this rule; it’s right there in Article VII of the state constitution. If you think judges are too prone to substituting their own judgments for the people’s, then this is the ruling for you.
Cooke wonders why a state wouldn’t want/expect its citizens to learn English by the time they’re 18 and jury-eligible. Good question, but I’m more intrigued by the practical implications here.
Michael Anthony Samora’s appeal argued that his convictions should be reversed because a Bernalillo County judge excused a Spanish-speaking prospective juror who had trouble understanding English.
The Supreme Court said it agrees with that argument but also said Samora’s defense needed to object during the trial but didn’t…
In Samora’s case, the prospective juror said on his jury questionnaire he didn’t understand English well enough to write in English, and the judge told him an interpreter would be provided if the man was selected to serve on the jury.
However, the judge dismissed the man after he acknowledged he was not able to understand a large portion of the court proceedings.
The defendant was convicted of murder one. If his attorney had objected during voir dire, presumably this would be grounds for mistrial.
Here’s what I mean by “practical implications.” If you’ve got 11 jurors who are listening to the witnesses’ testimony in English and a 12th juror who’s listening to an interpreter translating that testimony into another language, aren’t the jurors technically hearing different testimony? Is that a due process violation? You run into a variation of this problem when a witness can’t speak English and his testimony needs to be filtered through a translator, but at least in that case the entire courtroom’s hearing the same (translated) evidence. Besides, the witness can’t be disqualified on language grounds; he’s indispensable to the court if he has material evidence about the defendant’s guilt or innocent. Not so with a juror. Plus, consider the disruption of having to translate every single word of the trial, from bench rulings to witness testimony to opening and closing arguments, for the benefit of one person. The court has no choice but to do that if the defendant can’t speak English, but it does have a choice when selecting jurors. And of course the juror’s interpreter would have to sit in on deliberations too, even though that’s supposed to be off-limits to everyone not on the jury.
And yet, jury duty is an obligation of citizenship. If a (native-born) citizen’s not required to learn English in order to vote or fulfill other civic obligations, why bounce him from jury service because of it? What you could do as a work-around is put Spanish-speakers in a separate jury pool and conduct some trials entirely in Spanish (assuming the defendant also speaks it, of course). That would solve the problem of people hearing different testimony while ensuring that non-English speakers get to serve, but of course that puts you even further away from Cooke’s aspiration of everyone learning English by the time they’re 18. There’s less of an incentive to do that if the justice system begins splitting off into English- and Spanish-language tracks, which in turn will only encourage the cultural balkanization of America. Not sure what the answer is. “Learn English” isn’t an option, per constitutional law, in New Mexico.