ACLU: Defendants With Limited English Have Constitutional Right To Court Interpreters
ATLANTA – The Supreme Court of Georgia heard oral arguments regarding the constitutional rights of criminal defendants with limited English proficiency (LEP) to court interpreters. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Georgia and Legal Aid Society - Employment Law Center (LAS–ELC) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case charging that denying LEP individuals interpreters during criminal trials violates the U.S. Constitution.
"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 guarantees of due process and equal protection apply to everyone in this country, not just to fluent English speakers."
The ACLU's and LAS-ELC's brief was submitted on behalf of Annie Ling, a Mandarin-speaker who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years probation after a trial without an interpreter to assist her. Because of her limited English, Ling did not understand that she had the option to plead guilty rather than going to trial and face a much longer sentence, and at the trial, she could not understand the testimony for or against her. Her own trial attorney admitted that because of her limited English skills, he could not properly communicate with her without an interpreter. However, he decided not to ask the court for an interpreter because he felt it would make the trial "take a lot longer" and make the jury "impatient."
"Georgia's justice system failed Ms. Ling from the beginning to the end," said Araceli Martínez-Olguín, an attorney with LAS–ELC. "Georgia had an obligation to provide her with an interpreter in order to guarantee her civil rights as well as her rights to a fair trial and competent legal counsel."
The ACLU's and LAS–ELC's brief argues that denying LEP individuals interpreters during criminal trials violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Sixth Amendment rights of criminal defendants to confront witnesses, be present at their own trial and receive effective assistance of counsel. In addition, the brief argues, Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires the state of Georgia to provide competent interpretation services to all LEP individuals who come into contact with its court system.
"Our Constitution promises all criminal defendants a fair trial," said Jennifer Chang Newell, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "But the Constitution's promise is meaningless when a defendant's right to liberty is determined at a trial that is incomprehensible to her."
Attorneys on the case, Ling v. Georgia, are Newell and David Wakukawa (a volunteer attorney) of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, Azadeh Shahshahani and Chara Fisher Jackson of the ACLU of Georgia and Martínez-Olguín of the Legal Aid Society - Employment Law Center.
The legal brief can be found at: www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/ling-v-state-georgia-amicus-brief
American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad Street 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004-2400 United States