English Language is No Prerequisite to Jury Service in New Mexico

The New Mexico Supreme Court case of State v. Samora concerns the rights of non-English-speaking citizens and jury selection. Specifically in this case, the Court had to decide whether the excusal of a Spanish-speaking juror who had difficulty understanding English constituted a fundamental error requiring a new trial.

In this case, the defendant was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes related to the death of his girlfriend and a robbery and stabbing at a convenience store. During jury selection for the defendant‘s trial, the district court judge dismissed a juror who had difficulty understanding the English language.

When the juror originally filled out his questionnaire, it looked like he had adequate knowledge of English, and the court agreed to provide a translator if he was selected as a juror for the case. During voir dire, the juror admitted that he had had difficulty following the proceedings and hadn‘t understood a “large part of it.”

As a result, the court decided that the juror “had been unable to participate in voir dire in a meaningful way” and dismissed him for cause. The defendant argued that the dismissal of this juror violated his right to be tried by a fair and impartial jury. The defendant appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first addressed Article VII, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution reads as follows:

“The right of any citizen of the state to vote, hold office or sit upon juries, shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired on account of religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English…”

The Court determined that the juror‘s dismissal violated this constitutional provision since he was dismissed precisely for his inability to fully understand English. The Court reasoned that New Mexico courts are supposed to make “every reasonable effort to accommodate a potential juror for whom language difficulties present a barrier to participation in court proceedings.”

In a previous case, the Court explained that a court dealing with a language barrier during jury selection “should first take steps to determine whether the difficulty will prevent the juror from following the proceedings.” If the language barrier will present a difficulty, as it did in this case, “the trial court must take steps to ensure the availability of a suitable interpreter, if an interpreter is needed.”

Indeed, if an interpreter is “needed and not available, the court is under a constitutional obligation to continue the trial for a reasonable time if the continuance will be effective in securing an interpreter.”

The Court explained that the trial court didn‘t take any of these steps. In fact, the Court explained that the trial took place in the most populous district in New Mexico, “where a Spanish interpreter should have been readily available.” As well, the record reflected to efforts made to secure an interpreter.

However, despite finding a constitutional violation, the Court explained that the primary issue before it was whether that constitutional violation was a “fundamental error” that would require it to reverse the defendant‘s conviction.

The Court first explained that it would usually only review an issue for reversible error when the defendant has properly raised the issue at trial. The Court explained that the defendant failed to raise the issue at the time of trial. As a result, the Court explained that it would review for fundamental error.

The standard of review for reversal for fundamental error “requires the question of guilt be so doubtful that it would shock the conscience of the court to permit the verdict to stand.” The Court found that there was nothing in the trial court record to suggest that the defendant was convicted by an unfair or impartial jury.

The Court explained that the defendant didn‘t provide any evidence to show that he was “prejudiced in any way by the juror‘s excusal,” and aside from the improper dismissal of that juror, “the evidence of defendant‘s guilt was substantial.” As such, the Court determined that there was no fundamental error and the defendant‘s conviction would stand.

The opinion may appear somewhat confusing since it states unequivocally that non-English speaking citizens have a right to sit upon a jury and the dismissal for cause was unconstitutional. However, the lesson is simple. The error must be preserved for appeal (i.e. raised with the trial court). And, although the opinion will not help this particular defendant but it does signify the Court‘s position and the law of the land in New Mexico.

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