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Posted on Sat, Oct. 15, 2005

Language barriers cause costly delays in some Alabama courts


The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Birmingham lawyer Temo Lopez can still recall the frustration as he stood before a judge in Jefferson County Circuit Court.

His client, a Guatemala native, spoke no English.

Lopez, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, tried to explain the court proceedings in Spanish. But Jose Miguel Francisco, the Guatemalan - who understood only a little Spanish - could not comprehend what was happening because his native language is a Mayan dialect.

"He was very nervous, apprehensive, " Lopez said. "If you can't communicate with your client, it's very frustrating. I was helpless."

The judge postponed the proceeding, allowing time for Lopez to find an interpreter.

Francisco - with the help of someone who spoke the dialect but struggled with legal terminology - pleaded guilty to leaving his 5-month-old son in a Pratt City back yard for up to 36 hours. Francisco awaits deportation.

As Alabama's ethnic makeup continues to change, state and federal court officials face a growing variety of languages and dialects. People from Mexico and Central America, for example, where most Alabama immigrants are from, do not necessarily speak Spanish. As Francisco's example showed, Guatemala alone has dozens of dialects.

Adding to the woes is the lack of a certification process in state courts for interpreters.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Scott Vowell, the court's presiding judge in the county, acknowledges state courts should address the need.

"This is something we are going to really look at," Vowell said.

Federal courts have a court interpreter certification program. It is a two-year process that includes rigorous oral and written tests. Certified interpreters, considered independent from the courts, are then placed on an eligibility list from which court interpreters may be selected by local court officials. Their fees can range from $329 for a full day to $178 for a half day.

Alabama has only one certified Spanish-speaking federal court interpreter used in all three of the state's districts, according to federal court officials in Birmingham.

As a result, Birmingham's federal courts often rely on out-of-state interpreters from places such as Tennessee and Georgia.

Defense lawyers and Hispanic advocates believe the situation will worsen.

There are almost 100,000 Hispanics living in Alabama, according to the U.S. Census, representing an increase of almost 300 percent over the past 14 years. But population experts believe the census figures are not a true reflection because illegal immigrants are not among those counted.

And American law guarantees a defendant - whether legal or not - assistance to hear and understand what is being said in court. Seeking proper interpretation can mean costly delays - and even mistrials. Last month, a Jefferson County judge declared a mistrial for a man facing 13 counts of capital murder in the shooting deaths of four people.

Relatives of the defendant said the mistrial, which came on the second day of the trial and after a jury was seated, stemmed from concerns about the interpretation of testimony of a key witness who testified in Spanish. The judge and attorneys in the case would not publicly discuss the reason for the mistrial.

While the biggest need is for Spanish-speaking interpreters, defendants also have needed help with French and Asian dialects. A court proceeding in a Birmingham federal court was postponed until someone could be found who spoke Cantonese for an Asian defendant.

"It's become a real issue, especially with the growth in the Hispanic community," said Sigfredo Rubio, a Cumberland law school student.

Rubio's organization, Interpreter's and Translator's Association of Alabama, wants Alabama to join a national court interpreting consortium. Rubio said the cost to join is a one-time fee of $25,000, which opens the door for a certification process.

"The person is being judged based on what the interpreter is saying," Rubio said. "Ninety-five percent accuracy is not enough. We want 100 percent accuracy in interpretation."

Wanda Romberger, manager of court interpretation services for the National Center for State Courts, said bilingual skill is not sufficient to become an interpreter.

"There are specific interpreting skills in addition to language skills," she said.

So far, there are 34 states in the consortium, including Alaska, Georgia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida and Oregon. The consortium provides resources, such as educational programs in various languages.

"These are not just the border states," Romberger said. "Every part of our country is touched by non-English speakers."

Finding a continuing solution for Alabama will not be easy, defense lawyers and court officials agree.

Jefferson County District Court Judge O.L. "Pete" Johnson, who presides over many first appearances for defendants, said the courts are cash-strapped. He relies on lawyers who are bilingual to help handle preliminary court issues.

"If you have an interpreter appointed, you have to pay them," Johnson said.

The Jefferson County Commission is expected to provide up to $950,000 just to help keep the courts running for this fiscal year.

Lopez and Rubio say the need for interpreters has to be taken seriously. Lopez, whose parents are Mexico natives, has interpreted in other counties including Shelby, Walker, Blount, St. Clair and Marshall.

"We feel it's a due process right," Rubio said. "These people's liberties are on the line. The issue is greater than a Latino issue. It's a language issue."