In court, an understanding

A shortage of court interpreters in North Carolina has a direct effect on justice ‘for all.’

March 18, 2012 

If a person who must go to court cannot understand the charges against him or her, or the technicalities of a civil matter, the chances of a fair outcome in whatever dispute is at hand are diminished dramatically. No wonder, then, that the U.S. Department of Justice has found that North Carolina’s courts are violating the rights of people who speak little or no English.

The situation isn’t intentional, perhaps, but it’s a fact: There are not enough interpreters available to help these folks when they come before the bar.

The unfairness is real. The DOJ found that those who have gone into court without interpreters have wound up spending extra time in jail. So because there is no interpreter someone can lose his freedom. That’s outrageous, and North Carolina officials also should regard it as intolerable for even one more moment. Other dire consequences are seen as well.

Consider: In 2010, a woman in Gaston County, in the western Piedmont, couldn’t get a protective order against her husband, whom she said had attacked her, because there was no interpreter in court. In Wake County, a woman lost custody of her two children as a result of a hearing in which there was no interpreter. She didn’t even understand what had happened until after the permanent custody hearing was completed.

Language lessons

Surely officials understand that the state now has a large number of immigrants who are still learning the official language. They work; their kids go to school; they are customers of stores, and many are taxpayers. Yet it must seem to many, who have to make that appearance in the courthouse, that they are without rights when they walk through that door.

Credit Todd Nuccio, the trial court administrator in Mecklenburg Count, with telling it like it is.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We are the very institution charged with protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens. This finding reveals that we’re actually the ones violating those civil rights.” Nuccio went on to say that the problem has been known around courthouses for years.

A McClatchy Newspapers report said Wake County lawyers have said poor defendants are often denied interpreters. And federal investigators said a Wake staff member reported seeing prosecutors interpret for defendants, an obvious conflict of interest and denial of rights.

Speaking of rights

The Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state’s justice system, puts the blame for the Justice Department’s serious findings on money, and notes its belief that the cases cited are “isolated.” The office said the state spent $2.4 million last year for interpreters, 207 of them speaking 60 different languages. The interpreters have focused on indigent criminal defendants and in some domestic violence cases.

Court officials, though they don’t concur with all of the federal findings, acknowledge they’ve repeatedly asked for more money (from the legislature) but have been denied. That has meant no free interpreters for most civil cases.

Surely to no one’s surprise, federal officials aren’t much interested in excuses. Thomas Perez, an assistant U.S. attorney general, said the state can’t escape its obligations to follow federal civil rights laws, period.

If the state does not do something, and it appears “something” is going to be quite a challenge, it faces the strong possibility that federal officials will file a civil suit, a costly and problematic consequence that would leave the state with little chance of prevailing.

In difficult budget times, this situation perhaps conjures the phrase, “You can’t get blood from a turnip.” But if the justice system is going to live up to its obligations to fairness – obligations that are at the core of its very existence – then lawmakers have no choice but to act.

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