In 2010, a Latino woman sought a protective order against her husband in a Gaston County court. According to witnesses, the presiding judge did not provide the woman an interpreter, then dismissed the case because she was unable to communicate the allegations against her husband.
In Chatham County, a judge allowed a husband to interpret for his wife in a 2011 case in which she was trying to annul their marriage. The husband translated key testimony that the wife submitted in the case, which he won.
These alarming incidents were among several in a U.S. Department of Justice report last week that found the North Carolina court system is failing to provide sufficient translators to people who speak little or no English. The investigation was prompted in part by a May 2011 complaint from three non-profits - Charlotte's Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society.
Interpreters are provided by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, and they are paid for with money that comes from the N.C. General Assembly. Neither the courts nor lawmakers have lived up to their responsibility. The result: Parents are unfairly losing children in custody hearings, employees are hamstrung in fights against employers and defendants are cruelly disadvantaged in criminal courts.
"Ineffective communication deprives judges and juries of the ability to make reliable decisions; (and) renders victims, witnesses and defendants effectively absent from proceedings that affect their rights," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez told AOC director John W. Smith in a letter accompanying the Justice Department report.
There is plenty of blame to share in the findings. The AOC has inadequately staffed criminal courts with interpreters and wrongly concluded that state law allows it to not provide interpreters in most civil cases, the Justice Department said. Lawmakers have contributed to the shortfall by declining to fulfill funding requests. You wouldn't think that state and court officials would need a reminder about what the law requires, but here goes:
People who speak little or no English have a Constitutional right to interpreters that is provided in part by the 14th Amendment, which tells us: "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." That due process protection isn't just afforded to U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 6th Amendment narrows the focus, asserting that a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel, to which communication is essential. While the Supreme Court has not directly ruled on interpreters, state and federal courts have affirmed the right to one throughout the years.
And, just as a reminder, the Obama administration issued an opinion in 2010 warning states that not providing interpreters in civil and criminal cases was a violation of the Civil Rights Act.
Still, N.C. has fallen short, even intentionally in some instances. The AOC, in response to the Justice Department, argued that state law limits its ability to provide interpreters in civil cases. But Perez, in his letter, reiterated a well-established doctrine: Federal laws, such as those in the Civil Rights Act, trump state laws.
Perez has invited the AOC to negotiate a prompt solution, but he told Smith that the Justice Department is very willing to pursue a civil suit and terminate the millions in federal assistance that it provides the North Carolina court system. We hope that leaves the AOC and state lawmakers little room for interpretation.