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U.S. Justice Department probes Alabama court translation practices

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Alabama courts are following federal civil rights law in providing interpreters for people who are not fluent in English, court offi­cials have confirmed.

The investigation brought Justice Department person­nel to Jefferson County and several other Alabama courts this week, according to David Sawyer, a lawyer with the state's Administra­tive Office of Courts.

Their goal is to determine if the courts are making fed­erally required accommoda­tions for people who are considered "limited English proficient," said Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Justice Department. The investigation was prompted by a complaint more than a year ago, Sawyer said.

Agency personnel left Jef­ferson County on Thursday after interviewing the court's presiding judge, Scott Vowell. Their schedule earlier in the week included visits to courts in Albertville, Athens, Decatur, Fort Payne and Oneonta, Sawyer said.

"They primarily wanted to see what went on in Ala­bama's courts with regards to interpreter access," he said.

Some courts in Alabama allow people without legal vocabulary or knowledge of court procedures to inter­pret, said Mavi Figueres, an interpreter who was inter­viewed by the Justice Department.

"Pretty much anybody who speaks both languages -- not even fluently -- is be­ing accepted to interpret," often because of a lack of qualified interpreters, Fig­ueres said. In addition, Alabama law does not require the state to pay for interpreters in civil cases, a potential issue for the DOJ.

40 states in accord

The Justice Department first contacted the AOC more than a year ago, and then scheduled a visit that ended up being postponed, Sawyer said.

In the interim, Alabama started offering certification for court interpreters and became the 40th state to join the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, a group that devel­ops tests and standards for court interpreting. The first oral test required for certifi­cation will be given in De­cember.

Alabama state law leaves it up to judges to provide qualified interpreters, but it doesn't specify what "qual­ified" means. Developing a list of certified interpreters will aid judges, Sawyer said.

"While we're in the begin­ning stages, we've made a lot of progress," he said.

Vowell said he welcomes the Justice Department's help in ensuring courts have interpreters who are compe­tent and accurate in their interpretations.

"It's a problem that we all recognize, as we have a growing non-English-speak­ing population," Vowell said.

The Justice Department spokesman declined to say when the investigation's findings would be ready.

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