Friday, February 06, 2015

          HAP Pro Bono Efforts Help Achieve Victory for the Undocumented

          The Hastings Appellate Project is part of a winning team that has furthered access to a fair trial for undocumented immigrants.

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          Tiffany J. Gates ’11, a former student counsel for The Hastings Appellate Project and an appellate associate at Archer Norris in Walnut Creek, argued on behalf of the amici.

          The Hastings Appellate Project (“HAP”) is part of a winning team that has furthered access to a fair trial for undocumented immigrants.  On January 30, 2015, the Second District Court of Appeal issued its published decision in Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc.  The court held that the lower court committed prejudicial error when it informed prospective jurors during voir dire that plaintiff Velasquez is undocumented—even though his immigration status had no relevance whatsoever to any issue in the case.  HAP filed an amicus brief supporting Velasquez. 

          Gary A. Watt ‘97, certified appellate specialist, partner with Archer Norris and director of The Hastings Appellate Project, with the assistance of Archer Norris appellate associate Tiffany J. Gates ‘11, filed a brief arguing that reversal is warranted because the trial court’s unnecessary disclosure of Mr. Velasquez’s immigration status to prospective jurors irremediably tainted the jury selection process, which plays a crucial role in the protection of a litigant’s right to a fair and impartial jury.  “This case involves a very important issue affecting litigants all across the country—including clients of The Hastings Appellate Project,” said Watt.  “It was an honor to support Mr. Velasquez, whose case truly cried out for appellate intervention, and also to weigh in on how this important issue should be decided in California.” 

          In reversing and remanding for a new trial, the appellate court cited with approval the arguments of the amici.  The court stated that in light of the strong danger of prejudice attendant with the disclosure of a party’s status as an undocumented immigrant, it was reversible error to inform prospective jurors of Mr. Velasquez’s immigration status.  Mr. Velasquez will now have a second chance to seat a jury whose prejudices have not been unnecessarily excited by a judge’s statements about immigration status during voir dire.

          Across the country, courts have recognized that undocumented immigrant status is so likely to interfere with a jury’s ability to engage in reasoned deliberation that it must be excluded, even if arguably relevant to an issue in the case.  One need only glance at recent headlines to understand why exclusion of such evidence is warranted.  Indeed, events as recent as last November—when President Obama issued an Executive Order allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in this country legally—illustrate the controversial nature of issues surrounding immigration laws in this country today.  In the midst of this political climate, the trial court in Velasquez informed prospective jurors during voir dire that the plaintiff is in this country illegally.  Needless to say, Velasquez appealed and with HAP as part of his team, good law has been made and justice has been achieved. 

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