North Carolina's courts are violating the rights of people who speak little or no English by failing to provide free interpreters in civil cases, according to a federal complaint.
Charlotte's Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society have joined together to ask the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and stop what they say is discrimination in North Carolina courts.
Although the state provides interpreters for indigent defendants in criminal cases, advocates say limited-English speakers are routinely subjected to civil court proceedings they don't understand. The cases often involve disputes over housing, unpaid wages, parental rights and child custody.
When Miguel Angel Osorio went to small claims court in March 2010, he wanted to tell the judge his boss gave him a $2,000 paycheck that bounced. The court did not provide him an interpreter, and he couldn't afford one. The judge told Osorio he couldn't understand him, Osorio said, and dismissed the case.
"I didn't have even a dollar for an interpreter," he said. "I'm trying to go to court for help, but instead it's costing more money."
The issue is playing out across the country. It gained attention last summer when the Obama administration issued an opinion warning that states that don't provide interpreters in all court cases - both civil and criminal - would be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
A 2009 study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly half of the 35 states examined did not require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases.
Interpreters not only assist litigants who struggle with English, they also ensure attorneys and judges understand the litigant and can be confident their instructions are being understood.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts spends about $2.4 million for 207 interpreters speaking 60 languages. Their services are offered to indigent defendants in criminal cases and some domestic violence cases.
Despite last year's federal opinion, state court officials say they think current services comply with federal law and offer meaningful access to the courts for those with limited English proficiency.
Spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said the courts have repeatedly pursued law changes and requested money to expand interpreter services, but those initiatives have failed to gain widespread support. It would cost an estimated $1.4 million to expand the services to all cover civil cases, she said.
Attorney Jack Holtzman of the N.C. Justice Center, who filed the complaint on behalf of the three nonprofit groups, said the state has failed to make courts accessible to non-English speakers, and to translate court documents and websites.
"We don't want people to bypass the court system," he said. "The alternative ischaos. That is the one thing that separates us from other counties around the world - a fair and accessible court system."
In Mecklenburg, limited-English speakers struggle to understand - and be understood - in foreclosure proceedings, child support and sometimes in child custody cases, says trial court administrator Todd Nuccio.
He said interpreter services should be expanded. Otherwise, he says, the courts set up litigants "for failure because they may not understand the requirements placed upon them."
Even when Nuccio has interpreters available to help in civil cases, he's prohibited from offering that assistance based on the North Carolina courts' interpretation of state statutes.
The court system can be bewildering for anyone, says the Latin American Coalition's Jess George, but it can be terrifying for those who don't understand English or American culture.
"We see clients on a regular basis who the deck is really stacked against them in legal matters," George said. "Our legal system hasn't really been prepared for the recent demographic shift that has occurred in our state. And we feel it's really important for our courts to take a look at whether or not they're providing equal access to justice on all backgrounds."
In one case, a woman sought help from the coalition after a judge dismissed her domestic violence case against her husband for reasons she didn't understand. She worried her husband might seek retribution - and was unaware that he'd been detained for deportation.
"She wanted to be able to tell them this man is dangerous, and I'm afraid of him," said the coalition's Susana Jerez. "She was expecting to be saved from this situation. Instead she wasn't able to communicate with anyone."
Ron Woodard, whose NC Listen group advocates for greater immigration restrictions, said the courts should provide interpreter services for all citizens who need it, as well as for illegal immigrants facing criminal charges.
But tax dollars should not be spent to expand interpreters for illegal immigrants involved in civil cases.
"If people are here illegally and it's not a criminal case, they ought to go back to their home country to sort out their problems," he said. "And if they're going to sort it out here, they ought to at least pay for their own interpreter."