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Louisiana: Attorneys say non-English speakers at disadvantage in state court

Friday, September 18, 2009

The state’s laws protecting non-English speaking people in court are insufficient and could violate a federal civil rights act, two New Orleans lawyers told a legislative committee Thursday.
Louisiana laws that provide interpreters in civil and criminal cases for people who do not speak English are limited and ambiguous, the two Spanish-speaking lawyers said.
State Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, sponsored a bill that passed last year that requires judges to appoint a “competent interpreter” in civil and criminal proceedings for a non-English-speaker who is a principal party or a witness in cases.
Richmond is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony on the issue.
Monica Sanchez, vice president of the Louisiana Hispanic Lawyers Association, said state laws do not clearly provide guidelines or definitions for choosing interpreters or their conduct.
The word “competent” could mean a high school student who took Spanish for a year or the owner of a corner store, she said.
In some cases, attorneys have been allowed to translate for their own clients and interpreters have divulged privileged information between the attorney and client to judges, Sanchez said.
“Those lines are completely blurred because of this lack of guidelines,” Sanchez said.
Luz Molina, a professor at Loyola University College of Law, said not having proper rules could be a problem for Louisiana because the U.S. Department of Justice wants states to ensure that people with limited English have access to government services, Molina said.
“And they are interpreting these government services to include access to state courts,” she said.
If states do not meet federal guidelines, they could lose funding that has been used for court improvement programs and child support enforcement in Louisiana, Molina said. She said a bill in the U.S. Senate could provide grants for states to improve interpreter services.
Sanchez and Molina said they were not testifying only for Hispanics but many other growing minority populations, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, that have limited English skills.
“I’m not here trying to imply we have to extend rights to illegal immigrants,” Sanchez said. “We have a lot of people coming in who are legal.”
Molina said other states either create laws or their Supreme Court designs and administers a program that includes training, certification, appointments, supervision and removal.
The trend nationally is also for the state to pay for interpreters in criminal and civil proceedings, she said.
Sanchez said that judges, such as Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Kitty Kimball, are interested in the problem because they do not want to see the appellate courts swamped by clients who could not effectively communicate with their lawyers.
Legislators, judges and attorneys must come together to look at the current state laws and federal requirements and find a solution, she said.
“We have to think this through,” Sanchez said. “There are constitutional challenges in the future for these defendants and we have to take care of this now.”
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