Court Rules Non English Speakers Have the Right to Serve on New Mexico Juries in Contrast to Texas

A ruling in New Mexico that citizens who don’t speak English have the right to serve on juries has put the spotlight on other states with large Hispanic populations such as Texas.

The New Mexico Supreme Court is cautioning trial courts and attorneys that citizens who don’t speak English in a heavily Hispanic state, have a right to serve on juries, Associated Press reported. The right is enshrined in the state constitution, even if people are non-English speakers.

The court issued an admonition this month in a unanimous ruling that upheld the conviction of an Albuquerque man for murder and other crimes.

Michael Anthony Samora’s appeal had argued that his convictions should be reversed because a Bernalillo County judge “excused a Spanish-speaking prospective juror who had trouble understanding English,” AP reported.

The ruling informed 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.”

Michael A. Olivas, a University of Houston law professor, was quoted in the article as saying courts are required by the state’s constitution to make available translators for Spanish-only speakers and typically make accommodations for speakers of other languages such as speakers of American Indian languages.

Texas law is very different, KEYE TV pointed out in a recent article.

It quoted Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza, Travis County District Clerk, who stated: “In Texas the law is that they have to be able to understand, read and write the English language.” The jury qualifications clearly state you must “be able to read and write.”

Indeed the “inability to comprehend or communicate in English,” is an exemption to jury service in Texas.

419th District Civil Court Judge Orlinda Naranjo stated almost all court business in Texas and just about every other state, is carried out in English.

The exemption can be challenging for those involved in jury selection in Texas and requests from potential jurors seeking exemptions for jury service are taken very seriously.

Rodriguez-Mendoza said judges detail all the disqualifications in court, as well as all of the exemptions.

“And if the person feels they’re not understanding what’s going on, they will have the opportunity to speak to the judge.”

It remains to be seen if the demographics will force changes in Texas at some point in the future. The 2006 census found 48.3 percent of Texas were white and 35.7 were Hispanic.

By the early 2020s the Hispanic population is projected to eclipse non-Hispanic whites.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.