U.S. DOJ probes Alabama's funding for court interpreters
Sunday, November 29, 2009
- Organization: The Birmingham News
The state of Alabama pays for court interpreters in criminal and juvenile proceedings but not civil matters, a practice the U.S. Department of Justice considers a violation of federal civil rights law.
The agency is examining the state's compliance as part of a probe that brought investigators to several Alabama counties earlier this month, a lawyer with the state's Administrative Office of Courts said. The agency has not released any findings, but state law on court interpreters appears to be at odds with Justice Department mandates.
States and local jurisdictions, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and executive order, must provide and pay for court interpreters in both criminal and civil cases, Justice spokesman Alejandro Miyar said. "They have a responsibility to ensure access by persons with limited English proficiency," he said.
In Alabama, however, the state comptroller in accordance with state law will return any bills seeking payment for court interpreters in civil actions, said David Sawyer, a lawyer with the Administrative Office of Courts. And while state law says courts should make interpreters available as needed in civil matters, in practice that does not always happen -- in part because the state only recently began offering certification for court interpreters. In Jefferson County Family Court, for example, domestic violence victims who do not speak English are asked to find people who can interpret for them when they try to obtain a restraining order.
They often return with bilingual family members or friends who are not trained to interpret in a courtroom, said Claudia Hendley, a court advocate with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. Sometimes they don't return at all, discouraged and embarrassed to disclose the abuse to someone they know, she said.
"If we are not able to go, and they can't find an interpreter, then the communication between the victim and the judge is zero," she said.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department reminded states and local jurisdictions of the requirements under the Civil Rights Act, in light of the act's 45th anniversary and the distribution of federal Recovery Act dollars, Miyar said. He said the Justice Department is working with the courts to make sure they comply.
In at least 10 states, court interpreters are paid in all civil matters, said Laura Klein Abel, a deputy director at the Brennan Center on Justice at New York University School of Law. At least three others states pay for interpreters in some civil actions, said Abel, who researched the practices in 35 states for a 2009 paper on the topic.
"Having interpreters in court is fundamental to the abilities of courts to do their job," she said. "When judges can't communicate with people in the courtroom, they can't make findings of fact because they don't know what witnesses are saying, and when litigants can't understand the judge, they can't comply with court orders."
Brian Huff, the presiding judge in Jefferson County Family Court, said he sees the greatest need for interpreters in protection from abuse, child custody and paternity cases -- all civil matters.
Locke Donaldson, a special circuit judge, has heard most of the 660 protection from abuse cases filed in Jefferson County's Birmingham division this year. He estimated that 8 to 10 percent of those cases involve at least one person who does not speak English.
He will allow bilingual family members and friends to interpret, said Donaldson, a non-Spanish speaker who said he feels as if his hands are tied.
Donaldson said he uses his best judgment and reads body language to determine if a person interpreting in court has any bias. One time he stopped someone he thought was not interpreting fairly.
"I just got the feeling it was not exactly what the plaintiff was saying," Donaldson said. "It was more of a grudge."
Family court officials have designated two Thursday afternoons a month for protection from abuse cases involving Hispanic victims, which should allow Hendley, the court advocate, to attend more hearings. While Hendley may end up interpreting for a domestic violence victim, it's a conflict of interest for her to interpret for a defendant, she said.
Hendley said part of the problem is a shortage of good court interpreters in the state. The new certification program for court interpreters should help, said Saw yer, with the Administrative Office of Courts.
He said the courts in Alabama are working with the Justice Department and making progress in improving access to the courts for limited English speakers.
Huff said interpreters should be paid for by the government even in civil matters.
"The Legislature and state government need to recognize that we have citizens in this state who speak Spanish as their first language and recognize that there are people in this state legally who have a right to access to the courts," Huff said. He added that everyone, regardless of legal residency status, has a right to be safe.