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The Day the Supreme Court Ruled on the Bilingual Mind

How bilinguals can be excluded from jury service

Post written by François Grosjean.

One day I picked up the phone and heard that characteristic sound that told me that I was receiving a transatlantic call. An American colleague from Northeastern University, Deborah Ramirez, introduced herself and asked me if I knew that the Supreme Court had mentioned my work in one of its rulings. Since she was preparing a paper on the case, we exchanged phone calls, emails and faxes for a number of weeks. The story that emerged is fascinating.

On a Brooklyn street, back in 1985, Dionisio Hernandez fired several shots at his girl friend, Charlene Calloway, and at her mother, Ada Saline. Calloway was wounded as were two men in a nearby restaurant. Fortunately, all the victims survived the incident.

In 1986, jury selection began for the trial and it was during this voire dire episode that the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to exclude some Spanish-English bilingual jurors. When the defense objected, the prosecutor explained that he was not certain the jurors could accept the interpreter as the final arbiter of what was said by the Spanish-speaking witnesses.

The prosecutor was basically asking these prospective jurors whether they could disregard everything that was said in Spanish and only take into account the translation that would be rendered in English. He stated, "They each looked away from me and said with some hesitancy that they would try, not that they could...", and hence he excluded them.

This exclusion of jurors was appealed and went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The case is known as Hernandez v. New York (89-7645). In 1991, the Court affirmed the decision of lower courts, i.e. it accepted the exclusion of these jurors. It should be noted that the appeal had taken the tack of stating that the exclusion had been discriminatory towards Latino jurors and not towards bilinguals in general.

Why is this case interesting? It is well known in psycholinguistics that any verbal information that is seen or heard is processed. For example, I can't ask you to count the number of letters in the following word without you also reading it: SNOW. (Yes, there are four letters in it, and yes, it is that substance that comes back every year in many countries of the world). In addition, the information that is received is integrated with the information that preceded it as well as with the listener's general knowledge. This is true for monolinguals and for bilinguals, within and across languages.

So basically, the prospective bilingual jurors' answers were exactly the ones you would expect from bilinguals and were not idiosyncratic to specific bilinguals, as the Supreme Court alleged. They were going to have a hard time not listening to the witnesses when they spoke Spanish and they were also going to find it difficult not to integrate that information with the information given to them by the interpreter (hopefully the same or very similar; but see the inherent difficulties of interpretation in the post "Linguistic forensics").

By asking bilingual jurors to disregard everything that was said in Spanish, the prosecutor and then all the appellate courts up to the Supreme Court were asking bilingual jurors to do something they simply could not do. In addition, by their decision, they were condoning the potential exclusion of bilingual jurors in later trials where testimonies would be given in a language other than English.

Is there a solution? In fact, there are two as mentioned by Deborah Ramirez in her paper: all jurors could be required to wear headphones during the testimony in a language other than English, or instructions could be provided to bilingual jurors regarding the resolution of discrepancies between the original testimony and the English interpretation.

I have contacted Deborah Ramirez several times over the years to ask whether things have changed since then. She has always written back to say that bilingual jurors can still be excluded for the very same reason as in the Hernandez case, and that indeed some are.

Reference: Ramirez, Deborah. (1993). Excluded voices: The disenfranchisement of ethnic groups from jury service. Wisconsin Law Review, 3, 761-809.

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