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U.S. DOJ probes Alabama's funding for court interpreters

Sunday, November 29, 2009

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.

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