Protections of Justice System Should Apply to Us All, Even Non-English Speakers

The Supreme Court of Georgia's ruling today that defendants with limited ability to speak English have a constitutional right to court interpreters is an important victory for one in five legal U.S. residents who have trouble with the language. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Georgia and Legal Aid Society -- Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) had filed a friend-of-the-court brief asserting that denying Limited English Proficiency (LEP) defendants interpreters violates the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

In the 4-3 decision, the court said that native Mandarin speaker Annie Ling should be granted a new trial because her attorney failed to provide her with an interpreter. Ling had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for abusing her two children. Not only could she not understand testimony against her during the trial, she had no idea if she agreed with attempts by her attorney to clear her name. She also did not understand it was her legal right to plead guilty, likely for a much shorter sentence than she ultimately received. Her attorney admitted he could not communicate with Ling, but he did not to ask the court to provide an interpreter because he feared delaying the trial and irritating the jury.

Ling's conviction was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which vacated the ruling and sent the case back to the Georgia trial court. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote the majority opinion and was joined by justices Robert Benham, Harold Melton and David Nahmias.

"The court acknowledged that we don't have two systems of justice in this country -- one for English-speakers and another for everyone else," said Azadeh Shahshahani, Director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. "The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to everyone in this country, not just fluent English-speakers."

Interpreters are available and prominent in many sectors, but courts appear to have the fewest. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 50,000 interpreters and translators in this country working in a variety of industries. About 28 percent work in public and private educational institutions, including schools, colleges, and universities; 13 percent, healthcare and social assistance including hospitals; and 9 percent, government, such as federal, state and local courts ... that number needs to change.

In addition, interpreters must be fluent in the language, and just as importantly, they must know the sector in which they work to ensure they understand the nuance of a situation. Legal interpreters must know the judicial system and often the legal systems of other countries. It's important to have interpreters present throughout the critical functions of any criminal case such as attorney-client meetings, preliminary hearings, arraignments, depositions and of course the trials. Court interpreters may be called upon to perform sight translation, which involves reading a document written in one language in another.

Laws on interpreters in the courts vary by state. Limited federal certification is administered by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). The federal courts developed certification testing in just three languages -- Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo -- when the Court Interpreters Act of 1978 became law. The only certification currently offered at the federal level is for Spanish-language interpreters.

With more than 176 different languages and dialects spoken in the United States, we still have a long way to go to assure full support for all legal LEP defendants in court cases.

Louis Provenzano is President and Chief Operating Officer of Language Line Services, the world's leading provider of language-based services.