[lg policy] California: Study Finds Gaps in Aid for Non-English Speakers in State Civil Courts

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 5 19:03:20 UTC 2009

Study Finds Gaps in Aid for Non-English Speakers in State Civil Courts
Hiroku Masuike for The New York Times

Published: July 3, 2009

When Maythe Ramirez went to Superior Court in Contra Costa, Calif.,
for a child custody hearing in 2006, she wanted to tell the judge that
her husband beat her and should not be allowed broad visitation
rights. The court did not provide an interpreter for her, however, and
Ms. Ramirez, who speaks almost no English, could not follow the arcane
proceeding, much less participate. “It is really as if you are doing
nothing in court,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter,
“standing still and not being able to explain what’s really

Ms. Ramirez, who came to the United States from Mexico, later divorced
her husband and had the visitation rules modified with the help of a
lawyer from Bay Area Legal Aid, who got her interpreters for other
hearings. The court system can be a bewildering place for anyone, but
it can be terrifying for those who do not understand English. Federal
law requires civil and criminal courts that receive federal financing
to provide free interpreters for those with limited proficiency in
English. But while interpreters are commonly offered in criminal
cases, many states do not require the services in all civil cases. The
state of California, where Ms. Ramirez’s case was heard, provides
interpreters in some civil cases and not others.

A new study of civil courts, from the Brennan Center for Justice at
the New York University law school, examined the 35 states with the
highest immigrant populations and found that interpreter services are
not always provided, or not provided well, and are not keeping up with
growing demand. Of those states, 46 percent do not require that
interpreters be provided in all cases, and 80 percent fail to
guarantee that the courts will pay for the interpreter, as the
Department of Justice’s view of the law requires.

Thirty-seven percent of those states do not require that the
interpreters have proper credentials. The result is a national
patchwork of varying rights from state to state.

“This must change,” the report concluded. “Federal law, principles of
fundamental fairness, and our need for equal access to the justice
system all demand it.”

The disparity in services for non-English speakers between civil and
criminal cases makes little sense in light of the high stakes also in
civil court, said Richard S. Brown, a state appellate judge in

“Civil cases can involve denial of constitutional property rights,
termination of parental rights, statutory rights to be free from
harassment and stalking, consumer transactions, foreclosures and a
host of other matters,” Judge Brown said. “If a person cannot
understand what is happening in the courtroom proceeding, an unfair
result might occur. And that is contradictory to what we want our
courts to do: administer justice, fairly and impartially.”

In family law cases, which deal with issues like divorce, child
custody and abuse, the lack of language help “can mean the difference
between justice and injustice,” said Purvi Shah, executive director of
Sakhi for South Asian Women, an organization concerned with domestic
violence among South Asians in the United States.

“Your testimony on the experience of abuse is what needs to be
articulated to be able to access remedies,” Ms. Shah said.

States that do not provide interpreters in civil court are violating
federal law, said Laura Abel, deputy director of the Justice Program
at the Brennan Center and the author of the new report. “The law is
very clear,” Ms. Abel said, adding that while some states have made
progress in the last decade, “the state courts are just slow to

Wanda Romberger, manager of court interpreting services at the
National Center for State Courts, said states were trying to rise to
the challenge, but were struggling to find enough qualified
interpreters. Forty states have joined a consortium that promotes
language access to the courts and sets standards for training and
testing interpreters. But progress is uneven, Ms. Romberger said, and
many states have barely begun.

Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, introduced a bill last week
to provide $15 million a year in seed money for states to develop or
improve their court interpreter programs.

The federal requirement to provide interpreters in federally financed
programs goes back to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and was underscored
by the Clinton administration in an executive order in 2000 requiring
agencies to take “reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access” to
services. It was followed up with guidelines issued two years later by
the Department of Justice.

Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights,
restated the policy in April at a federal meeting devoted to language
skills issues. “Even in tough economic times,” Ms. King said,
“assertions of lack of resources will not provide carte blanche for
failure to provide language access. Language access is essential and
is not to be treated as a ‘frill’ when determining what to cut in a

The states, however, face daunting costs and challenges to bring
language aid to their courts. In New York, where state law requires
interpreters to be offered in all civil and criminal cases, costs have
been rising, from nearly $18 million in the 2004-5 fiscal year to more
than $24 million in the 2008-9 fiscal year, with 282,000 hours of
interpretation in nearly 90 languages, including Kurdish, Wolof and
Cajun French. According to a recent article by Ms. Romberger from the
National Center for State Courts, California civil courts provided
more than 160,000 days of court interpreter services in 2004-5 in
Spanish alone, and provided thousands of days in more than 20 other
languages, including Samoan, Romanian and Jhindu.

California’s costs for interpreter services have risen 12 percent a
year since 2004. Arkansas’s costs have risen by 74 percent a year
since 2003, according to the state courts group.

Federal court costs are rising as well, with $23 million spent on
interpreters in the 2007 fiscal year, up from $18 million in 2004,
according to the administrative office of the federal courts.

Such figures gall those who oppose permissive immigration policies.
“We accommodate for language too much, and that sends a very clear
message that it’s O.K. not to learn English,” said Mark Krikorian, the
executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in
Washington, a nonprofit group that seeks to limit immigration. “This
is an inevitable cost of massive immigration that is never taken into
account when making policy.”

The idea that immigrants should simply learn English, however, does
not sit well with Judge Brown. “I wonder aloud how many immigrants
from the 1840s through the 1920s lost their liberty, lost their
property, lost their homes, their livelihood, all because they could
not yet understand the English language to the fullest,” he said in an
e-mail interview. Judge Brown, who is deaf, said, “I think we are a
better country because we are now acknowledging what we did not
acknowledge in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

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