NM ruling: Non-English speakers can be jurors

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court is cautioning trial courts and lawyers in the heavily Hispanic state that citizens who don’t speak English have the right to serve on juries — a right enshrined in the state constitution even if people are non-English speakers.

The court issued the admonition Monday in a unanimous ruling that upholds an Albuquerque man’s convictions for murder and other crimes in the 2004 bludgeoning death of his girlfriend and a subsequent armed robbery and stabbing.

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.

The ruling told trial judges and lawyers that they “have a shared responsibility to make every reasonable effort to protect the right of our non-English speaking citizens to serve on New Mexico juries.”

The ruling said the prospective juror’s dismissal violated a constitutional provision that said a citizen’s right to vote, hold office or serve on a jury cannot be restricted “on account of religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages …”

New Mexico was part of Mexico before becoming part of the United States in the mid-19th Century, and many residents spoke only Spanish at the time. The state’s constitution drafted in 1911 for statehood gave protections for Spanish speakers.

Today, just under half of New Mexico’s population is Latino, making it the most Hispanic state in the country.

New Mexico recently celebrated its centennial and Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and the nation’s first elected Latina governor, often speaks Spanish to residents.

The juror information site for Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, states there’s no exemption for non-English speakers.

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 of the court proceedings.

Michael Olivas, a University of Houston law professor, said New Mexico courts are required by the state’s constitution to provide translators for Spanish-only speakers and typically make accommodations for others, like speakers of American Indian languages.

In a 2002, for example, ruling on juror service for Navajo speakers, the New Mexico high court said inconvenience alone doesn’t suffice to excuse a juror who cannot speak, read or write English or Spanish.

If necessary, a trial should be delayed a reasonable time in order to secure an interpreter for a juror, that ruling said.

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