** FILE **The jury box in Judge Sim Lake's courtroom at the Robert Casey Federal Courthouse is shown in a file photo from Jan. 11, 2006, in Houston. (AP Photo/Brett Coomer, Pool, File)
Bernard Ebbers, 63, left, is shown in this courtroom sketch by Jane Rosenberg at federal courthouse in New York Tuesday, March 15, 2005. Judge Barbara Jones is shown presiding behind, and courtroom deputy Mike Gurinach is shown right of Jones. Ebbers was found guilty in orchestrating an $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom, the telecommunications giant. (AP Photo/Jane Rosenberg)
Jury duty long has been held up as a privilege of U.S. citizenship, along with voting and a few other civic actions.
But in move that is drawing controversy, California is considering extending the right to serve on a jury to legal immigrants who are not naturalized citizens. The California Assembly passed a bill on Thursday that would allow non-citizens who are in the country legally to serve on jury duty.
Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat, sponsored the bill, arguing that the state needs to broaden the pool of eligible jurors, and that fulfilling jury duty would help integrate immigrants.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, the branch that deals with naturalization, said that only U.S. citizens may serve on federal juries, but that some local jurisdictions in the nation allow non-citizens to be jurors. The same is true of voting, which at the federal level requires citizenship.
Immigration advocacy groups lauded California’s move.
"It's a practical bill given the huge absence of jurors throughout the nation and it's an excellent introduction to our judicial system for residents who sooner than later will naturalize and become U.S. citizens," stated Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA.
But proponents of strict immigration policies likened the California bill to a slippery slope.
“The California Democrats should focus their attention on encouraging qualified aliens to become U.S. citizens,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. “In our democracy, a citizen is an office holder binding the community; a citizen helps in governing the community as a republic. Citizens have sacred duties that define this office, including voting, jury service and loyalty to the state, often in preparation for handling elected office.”
Federal policy requires that people be U.S. citizens to engage activities such as voting in federal elections or serving on federal juries. But at the local level, such actions do not always require citizenship.
The United States long has allowed non-citizen legal immigrants to join the armed forces. Roughly 8,000 immigrants who have so-called green cards join the armed forces each year, according to Pentagon data. Nearly 30,000 non-citizen immigrants now serve in the armed forces.
The California bill does not change other criteria for being eligible to serve on a jury, such as being at least 18, living in the county that is making the summons and being proficient in English.
California has a total of 173,339 legal permanent residents 18 years of over. Nearly 50,000 of them are from Mexico, 23,117 from China, 22,797 from the Philippines and 15,061 from India.
The jury duty bill passed 45-25 largely on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly and will move on to the Senate. One Democrat — Assemblyman Adam Gray, of Merced — voted no, while some other Democrats did not vote.
Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bill said there is no correlation between being a citizen and a juror, and they noted that there is no citizenship requirement to be an attorney or a judge. Republican lawmakers who opposed Wieckowski's bill called it misguided and premature.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said there is no shortage of jurors.
"Jury selection is not the problem. The problem is trial court funding," Harkey said before the vote. "I hope we can focus on that. Let's not break something; it's not broken now. Let's not whittle away at what is reserved for U.S. citizens. There's a reason for it."
Noting that women were once kept off juries, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said the judicial system should be changed to allow a person to be judged by their peers.
"This isn't about affording someone who would come in as a juror something," Perez said. "But rather understanding that the importance of the jury selection process of affording justice to the person in that courtroom."
An estimated 10 million Californians are summoned for jury duty each year and about four million are eligible and available to serve, according to the Judicial Council, which administers the state's court system. About 3.2 million complete the service, meaning they waited in a courthouse assembly room or were placed on call.
In 2010-2011, the most recent year available, only about 165,000 people were sworn in as jurors.
The judicial branch has not taken a position on AB 1401.
Wieckowski's office said that courts regularly struggle to find enough prospective jurors because jury duty is often seen as an inconvenience, if not a burden. His office did not cite any statistics but pointed to a 2003 legislative report that said numerous articles have noted high rates of non-participation.
A 2007 survey by the Center for Jury Studies said 20 percent of courts across the country reported a failure to respond or failure to appear rate of 15 percent or higher. The center is run by the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to improving court systems.
It's not clear, however, if that rate translates to a shortage of jurors in California.
Paula Hannaford, an expert at the Center for Jury Studies, confirmed that California would be the only place -- state or locality -- in the country to allow non-citizens to serve jury duty.
Hannaford said that the United States has more jury trials than the rest of the world combined, making it a challenge for courts to get enough people to serve. She also said that the law could help California’s juries achieve a more proportionate representation of Asians and Hispanics, many of whom are legal permanent residents, but not citizens.
The judicial branch has not taken a position on AB 1401.
Fox News researcher John Gallagher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.