By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California's Democratic governor vetoed a bill on Monday that would have allowed legal immigrants who are not citizens to serve on juries in the most populous U.S. state, saying such work was an obligation that went along with citizenship.
The veto comes as California has rapidly expanded the rights of immigrants - both legal and undocumented - even as the U.S. Congress has so far failed to pass sweeping immigration reforms sought by the White House.
"This bill would permit lawful permanent residents who are not citizens to serve on a jury," Governor Jerry Brown said. "I don't think that's right."
The vetoed bill had been part of a broader effort to expand immigrant rights in strongly Democratic California, where Brown last week signed into law measures that would allow undocumented immigrants to both legally drive and practice law.
No U.S. state currently allows non-citizens to serve on a jury, and analysts said Brown's veto was in keeping with a more centrist path charted by the governor and some Democrats this year as they tried to avoid alienating more moderate voters.
"Politically, he did not hurt himself by that veto," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California. "He showed what he believed in."
She added that had Brown signed the bill, he could have provoked a powerful response among conservative voters as the legislature is trying to hold on to a Democratic super-majority, and as the governor is widely believed to be preparing to run for re-election.
The 75-year-old Brown has pushed Democratic lawmakers toward a more moderate path on such issues as taxes and the state budget, and threatened to veto a proposed minimum wage hike until party leaders agreed to postpone its implementation.
'FABRIC OF OUR COMMUNITIES'
The sponsor of the jury bill, Democratic Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, expressed dismay at the veto, likening rules disqualifying permanent residents from jury service to long-discarded laws that kept black people and women from serving.
"I don't see anything wrong with imposing this civic obligation on immigrants who can spend the rest of their lives in the United States," Wieckowski, who represents the San Francisco suburb of Fremont, said in a statement.
"Lawful permanent immigrants are part of the fabric of our communities, and they benefit from the protections of our laws, so it is fair and just that they be asked to share in the obligation to do jury duty," he said.
California's overall push to expand privileges for immigrants is largely focused on the roughly 2.6 million illegal immigrants who are living in the state.
The push marks a dramatic turnaround in a state where two decades ago voters sought to bar illegal immigrants from all public services - including elementary and secondary education - but which now grants in-state college tuition to some such immigrants.
The expansion of rights for the immigrants without legal status places California in stark contrast to states including Arizona, which earlier this month widened its ban on licenses for illegal immigrants, including those granted temporary relief from deportation.
But the jury measure differed from those laws, because it did not address the social needs of such immigrants. Instead the law would have conferred new rights and duties on immigrants who are in the United States legally as permanent residents, which opponents complained went too far.
"Serving on a jury is a responsibility best left up to the citizens who have pledged allegiance to the United States," said Republican Assemblyman Brian Jones, who represents part of San Diego County.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker and Ken Wills)