By Gary Scharrer | San Antonio Express News
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
AUSTIN — Judges could disqualify Texans from jury duty if they cannot read or write English under legislation tentatively approved by the state House Tuesday.
Supporters say it simply codifies existing practice because current law requires a juror to be able to read and write.
“Adding the word ‘English' really just made it come off the page,” lawyer Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said.
Critics say the bill is mostly symbolic but fear that it could result in Hispanics being unfairly removed as potential jurors.
“This is going to be a way of keeping Hispanics off of a jury. This will b a hidden opportunity to strike jurors because of race,” said Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas.
Not so, countered Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, author of HB 1633.
“I'm tired of the race-baiting. We brought a legitimate issue to make sure that our judicial system is efficient and fair to every individual who would enter that process.”
Creating a specific “English” standard will give judges more control instead of relying on lawyers from opposing sides to negotiate a prospective juror's literacy qualification, Bonnen said.
But there are no criteria for a judge to determine whether a prospective juror can read and write English, Alonzo said.
Bonnen failed to get a similar bill passed two years ago because Alonzo kept it bottled up in committee when Republicans only had a two-seat majority in the House. Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats, 101-49.
Alonzo said Bonnen recently told him, “I messed him up two years ago and now he has 101 votes.”
“Roberto Alonzo lives in a fairy tale,” Bonnen said after the House voted, 111-31, for his measure. No Republican voted against the bill, while 12 Democrats supported it.
Among Bexar County's delegation, Republicans Lyle Larson and John Garza voted for the bill along with Democrats Mike Villarreal and Joaquin Castro. Reps. Joe Farias, Ruth Jones McClendon and Jose Menendez, all Democrats, opposed the bill.
Dutton said he will try to amend the bill before a final vote Wednesday or ask the Senate to add a provision allowing a juror to be qualified if he or she can understand and comprehend English.
“There are many, many people in Texans who cannot read or write English but they understand,” said Dutton, who voted for the bill. “That's where I think we have to draw the line.”
The state of Hawaii qualifies jurors if they can understand English, Dutton said.
Castro, a lawyer, said he voted for the bill because existing law requires a juror to be able to read and write.
“Obviously, English is the language that our courts function in. It's fair enough — so long as courts and judges don't go overboard,” Castro said. “It's mostly a symbolic bill unless the process is abused.”
Dutton agreed: “The practical effect does nothing. I think, maybe, there's some gamesmanship being played about symbolism.”
But Bonnen called it “a common sense bill” that 37 other states already have in law.