Maria Machin had a test for the Duval County Courthouse when she walked in on the morning of June 29. She would walk to every single floor of the courthouse and ask for directions to the domestic-violence office. She wouldn't ask for help in English – only in Spanish.
As Machin ambled from floor to floor, she went to each help desk asking for employees to show her the way, but instead of assisting her, she says they looked at her like she was "an alien." Finally, she found her way to the office, where again she asked for help, this time about filing domestic-violence forms. After some more strange looks, the employees finally rustled up from the back a woman who spoke Spanish.
"She told me that there are no forms or anything to give someone that speaks Spanish," says Machin, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Jacksonville. "The clerk of the court has told his people that anyone coming in that doesn't speak English has to bring their own translator ... it's like Mayberry on acid here. We are invisible to them."
The experience Machin had last month is the reality many people who are limited English proficient, also known as LEP, experience as they go through Florida's judicial system. And it isn't limited to asking for directions at a help desk. In most Florida courts, interpreters are not provided by the state in civil cases, only in criminal proceedings, Machin says, and in some courts, LEP individuals are asked to bring and pay for their own interpreters, unless they are indigent. LEP services also vary by location and the population of speakers of other languages, she says.
Machin is a member of the Florida Language Access Coalition. Last week the organization filed an administrative complaint to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division that alleges that Florida courts are routinely violating the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to provide free, qualified interpretation services in all programs and activities of the courts.
Under the Civil Rights Act, state courts that receive indirect or direct federal funding must comply with Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance, according to the federal LEP website. In a 2010 letter from Thomas Perez, then the Assistant Attorney General of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, to state court administrators and chief justices across the country, Perez wrote, "The Supreme Court has held that failing to take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access for LEP persons is a form of national origin discrimination. ... Despite efforts to bring courts into compliance, some state court system policies and practices significantly and unreasonably impede, hinder or restrict participation in court proceedings and access to court operations based upon a person's English language ability."
Perez also reiterated in his letter that state courts must provide interpreters in all court proceedings, cannot charge interpreter costs to one or more parties, cannot restrict language services to only courtrooms and must ensure communication with court appointed or supervised personnel.
In a memorandum of understanding between the State of Maine Judicial Branch and the federal government, the DOJ makes it clear that in an extreme case of noncompliance from a state, the department is authorized to terminate its financial assistance or file a civil suit.
Florida State Statutes 90.606 and 90.6063 address interpreters and translators, but don't specifically provide instructions for people who are not deaf. Florida Supreme Court public information officer Craig Waters said in a statement on July 15 that "The Florida Supreme Court and the state courts have a policy of not commenting publicly about pending complaints against us."
In the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, interpreters are provided in any situation where you could lose due process rights, which includes the criminal division and juvenile courts, as well as domestic violence and mental health hearings, says chief deputy court administrator Karen Levey. The circuit court employs seven Spanish-speaking interpreters and one Spanish/Haitian Creole interpreter, who provide services for almost 25,000 court hearings.
"It's quite a few events for just eight people," she said. "We would like to hire more, but we can't until we have funding sources from the state."
Kathy Card, state coordinator for the Florida Language Access Coalition and one of the complainants, says she was the chair of the National LEP Advocacy Task Force when it filed a successful complaint against Maine's judicial system over a decade ago for not complying with the federal law. After the DOJ's ruling, Card says information was sent to all state judicial systems about LEP rules, including Florida's program manager for the Court Interpreter Certification and Regulation Program..
Later, she retired and moved to Florida, where she says she found Florida was about 20 years behind when it came to interpretation services in courts, hospitals, schools, housing, voter polls and social services. In June, she called Florida's program manager to see what the situation was a decade later.
"She just told me they look toward Florida State Statutes, and when I asked about the federal law, she said, 'I'm not going to comment on that, you will have to ask general counsel,'" Card says. "It's frustrating because if you're not monitoring the states' compliance, they stop. ... There is a huge amount of work ahead of us, and this state is the most challenging in the entire country."
How other states are dealing with language-access laws
According to a Brennan Center for Justice report in 2009, 46 percent of state courts fail to require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases, 80 percent fail to guarantee that people needing interpretation are not unlawfully charged and 37 percent fail to require that interpreters be credentialed.
A decade after an administrative complaint was filed against Maine’s judicial system for not following federal law, communication access specialist Taylor Kilgore says the state will provide an interpreter to anyone who identifies as LEP, no questions asked.
“We have had to make cuts from other places, but this is one of our big priorities,” she says.
Maine doesn’t really have large populations that speak one language, but rather smaller community pockets that each speak their own language, and Kilgore says that at times it can be hard to find speakers of less-common languages.
In California, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles filed a complaint against the state judicial system in 2010 after two Korean-speaking people involved in civil suits were denied interpreters in Los Angeles County, says Joann Lee, directing attorney for the foundation.
The California courts decided to comply voluntarily with the Department of Justice in 2011, and in January of this year created a strategic plan to expand the provision of spoken language interpreters by 2020 to include all civil proceedings and all court-ordered, court-operated programs, services or events, according to the California Language Access Plan.
“I think people are very appreciative,” Lee says. “There’s still some bumps in the road but for the most part, they are happy with the new policy.”
Editor's note: In the original version of this story, we reported that the National LEP Advocacy Task Force sent information to state courts explaining LEP rules; that information was sent by the U.S. Department of Justice, not the task force. We regret the error.