Student Report Key to Justice Department Finding That Faults N.C. Courts Over Interpreters

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A court appearance can be a confusing, intimidating experience for anyone without a law degree. Imagine what it’s like for litigants who don’t speak English.

Deborah Weissman, the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law who supervises the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic at the UNC School of Law, says she has seen some unconventional ways of dealing with non-English-speaking litigants. According to Weissman, some judges shout, as though the litigants are deaf; some ask whether anyone in the courtroom will volunteer to interpret; some even ask the bailiff for anyone in an orange jumpsuit waiting to be arraigned who could interpret. Even in criminal cases, where the law requires an interpreter for non-English speakers, judges can too quickly assess a defendant’s ability to understand English, sometimes after exchanging only a few words or a perfunctory greeting.

“It’s disturbing,” says Weissman. “Non-English-speakers have a very difficult time making their way through the courts. Even when it’s not our client, to law students enrolled in the clinic who have a deep attachment to fairness in the judicial system, it doesn’t feel right.”

In the spring of 2010, three of Weissman’s third-year law students, Emily Kirby, Sarah Long and Sonal Raja, studied the problem of a lack of interpreters in North Carolina courts. After observing proceedings in courts around the state and interviewing judges, public defenders, Legal Aid lawyers and private attorneys, the three women wrote a report that analyzed the problem and provided reasonable recommendations to make the N.C. courts more accessible to non-English-speakers. They presented their 95-page report to the U.S. Department of Justice, at its request, as well as other advocacy agencies, such as the N.C. Justice Center, which had been trying – without success – to get the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to discuss some solutions.

The N.C. Justice Center followed up by filing a complaint with the justice department, and in March of this year, the department released its findings, determining that “the AOC’s policies and practices discriminate on the basis of national origin, in violation of federal law.”

Weissman calls the students’ work “a tremendous success.”

“Access to the rule of law is the cornerstone of democracy,” she says. “When the judicial system disenfranchises individuals because of language barriers, particularly in light of the law that says you cannot do that if you are the recipient of federal funds, as our state courts are, we feel compelled to address it.”

The report came out of experiences law students had not only in immigration cases but in the law school’s civil clinic, juvenile justice clinic and domestic violence clinic. The Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic is a hybrid clinic of immigration casework and policy work. Students work to resolve individual cases, but often realize that the problems their clients face require structural changes. So the law students come up with policy proposals to ameliorate the impasse.

Most of the litigants in the UNC clinical programs are not undocumented immigrants – though the law doesn’t make a distinction between documented and undocumented residents in terms of their access to the courts. Often, the litigants are refugees whom the U.S. has accepted into resettlement programs or are eligible for other immigration remedies.

North Carolina has a statute regarding interpreters for the deaf, one of the best in the country, Weissman says, that could serve as a model for regulating foreign language interpreters. Instead, the AOC has “best practices,” which are not binding and not routinely or uniformly implemented.

Now that the Department of Justice has released its findings, Weissman and her students hope that the AOC will negotiate some steps toward resolution and a schedule of implementation, a recommendation in the students’ report. If the AOC should fail to cooperate, its federal funding could be at risk.

“Some changes can be made sooner; some will take longer,” Weissman says. “But we are optimistic that the AOC will take action on this very basic issue about democracy and society.” 

-May 21, 2012

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