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Equal protection? Immigrant advocacy groups claim NC courts inaccessible to non-English speaking residents

by Keith Barber

(illustration by Devender Sellars)

Selma Ahnert spent the afternoon of June 2 shuttling from one courtroom to the next at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice. Ahnert, a staff interpreter for the court system, started out in Chief District Court Judge William Reingold’s courtroom where truancy cases were being heard.

Reingold listened to the case of Rosa, a teenage Latina charged with truancy. Ahnert interpreted for Rosa’s family as Reingold told everyone in the courtroom that truancy was the tip of the iceberg for the young defendant.

“Young lady, I treat this courtroom very differently,” Reingold said. “You are facing going to detention. I’m not going to send you, but that would not be the case in a traditional criminal court.”

Reingold dismissed the case. Charles, a Latino teenager, then appeared before the judge. Several people spoke on the young man’s behalf. All the while, Ahnert interpreted for Charles’ parents. Reingold dismissed the case with an admonishment for the young man.

“If I see you again, I will be more harsh with you,” he said. And so it went, one case after the other. In a single afternoon, Ahnert would interpret for non-English speaking defendants and their families in juvenile cases, criminal cases, domestic violence cases, traffic court, child support hearings, youth drug court and superior court cases. Like all staff court interpreters in the state, Ahnert received her training from the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, or AOC.

Ahnert said the rules are very clear regarding an interpreter’s role in the courtroom.

“I don’t explain to them; I just interpret what the Judge Crump says,” Ahnert said. “I just interpret what the persons — the defendant or the parent — says to the Judge Crump and what the Judge Crump tells them, or what the judge tells them but I don’t go into explaining.”

Sometimes defendants ask Ahnert questions in Spanish and she directs them to the judge because, “I am not in a position to give any kind of legal advice and that would be giving legal advice. I’m just there for communication purposes,” she said.

Ahnert said she is aware of a complaint filed by three advocacy groups for language minority individuals — the Latin American Coalition, Vietnamese Association of Charlotte, and Muslim American Society of Charlotte — with the US Department of Justice claiming that North Carolinians with limited English proficiency were being denied “meaningful access to the state judicial system.”

However, Ahnert said she doesn’t see a problem in the Forsyth County courts. She has not witnessed any cases of non-English speaking people or limited English proficiency (LEP) individuals being denied access to the court system due to language barriers.

Growing immigrant population = growing challenge

With the growing population of Middle Eastern immigrants in the state, Arabic and African languages are not being represented in the court system at all, said Khalilah Sabra of the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center.

In Wake County, for example, there is only one Arabic speaking interpreter for the entire county, she noted. Sabra is one of the architects of the complaint filed with the Department of Justice on May 16. The complaint focuses on the uniform policy of the North Carolina courts that “no civil litigant may receive a free, court appointed interpreter, irre spective of their inability to speak or understand English.”

Under current North Carolina law and policy, the only individuals eligible for a free, court provided interpreter are indigent criminal defendants in courtroom proceedings where counsel is provided; indigent defendants in criminal cases; indigents in juvenile proceedings regarding delinquency as well as abuse and neglect; all parties in mandatory custody mediation; all plaintiffs in domestic violence or 50B protective order cases; and indigents involved in involuntary commitment proceedings.

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Selma Ahnert (right), a staff court interpreter for the Forsyth County court system, interpreted for (from left) Loreto Izaguirre, Rosa Ramos and Rosalina Ramos during a truancy hearing in Chief District Court Judge William Reingold’s courtroom on June 2. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

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Khalilah Sabra of the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center was one of the architects of a complaint filed with the US Department of Justice that claims North Carolinians with limited English proficiency are being denied “meaningful access to the state judicial system.” (photo by Keith T. Barber)

“There is no discretion left to the judges themselves whether or not to provide an interpreter, free of cost, to any LEP litigant in any other matter, including virtually all civil matters,” the complaint alleges.

Mark Sills, who recently retired as executive director of FaithAction International, said at least once or twice a month, the nonprofit is called upon by clients and local attorneys to provide Spanish-language interpreters in civil court cases in Guilford County. FaithAction is an interfaith group that strives to build inclusive and equitable communities, according to its website. The interpreters provided by FaithAction in civil cases have lacked the proper certification from the NC Administrative Office of the Courts.

“Because of the lack of court interpreters, we have had to provide interpreters in a number of cases involving domestic violence because no one else was available, which means they were using people who were not court certified," Sills said. "And that’s dangerous.”

Typically, it’s not the nonprofit’s policy to provide interpreters to anyone outside its office. “But when you’ve got a crisis and particularly something as complex and important as domestic violence, it’s very important to have the

proceedings of the court explained in your language,” Sills said. “If no one else is available, we’re forced to step in and provide a staff member or volunteer.”

FaithAction fully supports the complaint filed by the Latin American Coalition, Vietnamese Association of Charlotte and Muslim American Society of Charlotte with the Department of Justice.

“These folks have every right to be in court, to utilize the courts,” Sills said. “By not having interpreters available they are in effect not having full access to the courts.”

“It’s a civil rights issue,” he continued.

“It is people — because of their national origin — who are being denied access to the courts.”

The complaint alleges the state court system has failed to provide foreign language interpreters at no cost to LEP civil litigants and criminal non-indigents in North Carolina courts, “as well as failed to translate important court-related administrative documents and website pages necessary for litigants to meaningfully participate in the state court system, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These failures to provide meaningful access are not simply inadequacies of implementation; rather, they are enshrined in the explicit policies of the North Carolina courts, which directly contravenes federal law.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reads as follows: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Stretched resources

Sharon Gladwell, communications director for the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, said she is aware of the complaint filed by the immigrant advocacy groups. Gladwell said the AOC has been trying to get additional funding for interpreters from the NC General Assembly for the past several years.

However, the budget passed past last month by state lawmakers cuts funding to the state’s courts by $38 million and eliminates more than 300 staff positions, according to the AOC website. In anticipation of future cuts, the AOC has already implemented a voluntary reduction in force, slashing 194 positions.

Gladwell clarified federal laws regarding the state courts responsibility to provide equal access to all citizens, regardless of their national origin.

“These are federal guidelines — they’re not laws,” she said. “We want to follow the guidelines, but we need additional funding. At a time when we’d like to expand services, our budget is being cut by [$38 million].”

The case of Nimeh Lafi

On April 1, 2009, Nimeh Taha Lafi filed a domestic protective order against her exhusband, Mazen Fathi Said. A Wake County judge declined to grant the protective order due in part to the fact they could not fully understand Lafi’s testimony during the hearing, Sabra said.

During the Wake County hearing, there was no court interpreter available to Lafi, who speaks Arabic and very limited English. Sabra said she offered to have her daughter, Sarah Baddour, interpret for Lafi but the judge refused because Baddour is not certified by the NC Administrative Office of Courts.

On May 4, 2009, Mazen Fathi Said, Nimeh’s ex-husband, filed a domestic protective order against her, stating that Nimeh was harassing him and he felt he was in danger of serious injury. On June 10, 2009, District Court Judge Avery Crump heard the case at the Guilford County Courthouse.

A review of the audio transcript highlights the issues that arise when interpreters are not provided for non-English speaking citizens, Sabra said. What follows is an excerpt of the June 10, 2009 court proceeding:

The hearing begins: Judge Crump: Ma’am, are you ready to proceed in this matter?

Nimeh: Yeah. Judge Crump: Or do you need a continuance? Do you speak English?

Nimeh: Yeah, I just get confused when I speak English. Sometimes I don’t understand all the words. Sometimes I can’t express very well. So my friend went and I want her to testify.

Judge Crump: You said your friend did what?

Nimeh: Yeah, she came. She said some things about him; she just went and she will came back. She is my witness.

Judge Crump: So you’re not ready to go forward.

Nimeh: I don’t think with all this happening right now.

Sarah Baddour is interpreting what the Judge Crump is saying and Nimeh is responding.

Judge Crump: Are you asking for a continuance ma’am or are you asking until your witness gets back?

Sarah: Can I explain, your honor? Judge Crump: Who are you? Sarah: I’m with her. I was going to translate but… can I translate for her?

Judge Crump: Ma’am, when you translate, translate what the court just asks her.

Sarah: Yeah. She wants a continuance. Judge Crump: A continuance for what? Nimeh: I’m pregnant; I’m in the last month; I have three weeks or four weeks at maximum to deliver so after I deliver or… Judge Crump: I need you to repeat that because your voice keeps dropping; I want to make sure I hear everything that you say; the first thing I heard you say was you’re pregnant, then I heard something about three weeks.

Nimeh: Yeah, I have three weeks to deliver or four weeks maximum.

Judge Crump: So you don’t want to do it because you have four weeks to go to deliver?

Nimeh: Yeah, so I (unintelligible) let’s see, next week; next week.

Judge Crump: You want to continue to next week?

Nimeh: One week. Judge Crump: For what reason? Judge Crump: Because next week you’ll be closer to delivery.

Nimeh begins speaking while the Judge Crump is talking.

Judge Crump: Don’t talk while I’m talking.

Nimeh: Okay. Judge Crump: Next week, you’ll be a week closer to delivering so why are you asking a continuance to next week.

Nimeh: Because I want to finish this before I (unintelligible) Judge Crump: Because you want to finish… Nimeh: To finish from this because I can’t go and come back; I have pains; I can’t go and come back to Greensboro; also, there is no one to pick me up; my driver is took off from his job to bring me here.

Nimeh to Sarah Baddour — Can you translate?

Sarah: She’s having contraction pains right now; she’s been having them since we got here, so that’s why she wants to see if she can get a continuance; I thought she wanted for after the baby was born; I don’t know if you can do it for that long.

Judge Crump: That’s not what she said. Sarah: That’s what she was saying before. Judge Crump: Ma’am as a translator, you translate what she says to the court. You can’t add anything to it and you can’t delete anything from it. Do you understand?

Sarah: Yeah. The audio transcript reveals that at one point Nimeh questions Mazen and it’s clear that Judge Crump gets frustrated with Nimeh because she doesn’t understand court etiquette.

Sabra listened to the recording of the court hearing in the Raleigh offices of the Muslim American Society last week. Sabra said she was in court that day with Nimeh and Sarah. She wrote out questions for Nimeh to ask Mazen. Nimeh represented herself in the proceeding.

“The judge lacks the ability to communicate with the defendant in this situation,” Sabra said. “[Nimeh] doesn’t understand the court rules and there’s no one to explain it to her in a satisfactory way so the judge is becoming increasingly frustrated from [Nimeh’s] inability to understand what the message she’s trying to convey about the ground rules of the testimony.”

The audio recording later reveals that at one point, Said’s attorney asks Sarah if she will interpret for Mazen’s mother. Sarah declines and the attorney withdraws the request.

“Talk about a conflict of interest,” Sabra said. “It shows you the insanity of the whole system. How can someone who’s being accused testify for the accuser? They’re basically being relied on to give evidence against themselves, incriminating evidence against themselves and the person that they are there trying to help — it doesn’t make any sense.”

Under current North Carolina law and policy, Nimeh was entitled to a free court appointed interpreter in her 50B domestic protective order cases heard in both Wake and Guilford counties, but none was provided. Ultimately, the overarching purpose of the complaint filed by the three immigrant advocacy groups is to expand equal protection under the law for all North Carolinians, regardless of what language they speak, Sabra said.

“If we don’t hold democracy to its contractual agreement with people in America, we’re not going to take it seriously with respect to other issues like healthcare and education,” she said.

“It goes deeper than that,” Sabra continued. “Very few documents from the federal government — documents dealing with healthcare services and education — you’re not going to find documents that can be understood by Arabic and African language speaking people. You find it in English and Spanish — that’s it. Right now, we’re talking about the courts.”

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