New Mexico was a heavily Spanish speaking area before it became part of the United States in 1911. It still is. Since many residents spoke only Spanish at the time New Mexico became a state, the state’s constitution made special mention of their civil rights.
Moving right along to the next century, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that non-English speaking New Mexico citizens may not be barred from serving on a jury.
The case in question involved a Spanish speaking prospective juror who at first said he could adequately understand the proceedings and later said he could not. He was dismissed. The accused was convicted of murder and then appealed on the grounds that the juror should not have been dismissed. He lost the appeal on his conviction. The court agreed the juror should not have been dismissed, but the defense should have brought it up sooner.
That means interpreters will have to be provided for non-English speaking jurors. Obviously this leads to questions about a right to a fair trial given the fact the juror is informed by a third party’s interpretation of the proceedings during the trial and during jury deliberations.
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 portion of the court proceedings.
Spanish is widely spoken in New Mexico but 100 years after becoming a state, it is not unreasonable to expect jurors to be proficient in English when determining the fate of the accused in an English-speaking courtroom. Sadly, I expect the rest of the country will trend in the direction of New Mexico and it won’t take 100 years.