Maryland's courts sometimes fail to properly serve those with limited-English skills, according to legal advocates and public officials, despite federal laws requiring them to do so and a national push to ensure equal access to the country's courts.
About two months ago, Flor Giusti, head of a local group that helps Latino women who are the victims of domestic violence, accompanied a woman to a Baltimore County court to extend a temporary protection order against her partner. Lacking a Spanish interpreter that day, the judge asked the woman questions directly.
The woman, who spoke little English, was understood as saying the partner was the grandfather rather than the father of her children, which could have led to the order being dismissed.
"I had to intervene from the audience, just to say, 'Excuse me, I think there is a misunderstanding here,' " said Giusti, executive director of Adelante Familia. "I was afraid that the whole protection order would fall apart, just because there was not an interpreter."
The Maryland Access to Justice Commission, a state body made up of judges and other officials formed in 2008, is investigating language barriers in Maryland's courts and issuing recommendations on how to improve communication. The federal government has also taken a more active role in enforcing equal access for those who speak no or little English. In August, the Department of Justice sent a letter to courts nationwide citing specific failures.
Any court that receives federal funding is subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires access for all individuals, regardless of their national origin. That includes offering services to limited-proficiency speakers.
According to local advocates, limited-English speakers face clerks unaware of available services; are given old translations of legal forms; and, at times, are incorrectly told they must pay for a court interpreter.
And while Maryland courts generally do a good job of providing interpreters in formal hearings, advocates said, there are gaps where there is no standard process for dealing with non-English speakers.
Before the end of the year, staff in charge of coordinating interpreters are slated to receive additional training, said Audrey J.S. Carrion, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge and chair of a statewide committee on court interpreters.
But the state judiciary branch has gone three years without new positions, raises or cost-of-living adjustments to salaries, said Pamela C. Ortiz, executive director of the Access to Justice Commission, and further moves — such as training — might be impossible with current budget restrictions.
"Until there are more resources available, it is difficult to provide for the broad range of language needs that people have," Ortiz said, adding that hiring bilingual or multilingual staff could be a cost-effective move in that effort.
Maryland courts spent $3.2 million on court interpreters in fiscal year 2010, double the amount spent in 2003, Carrion said. The state judiciary budget pays for interpreters.
But Giusti said that limited funding is only part of the problem. Her organization has found, for instance, that court employees sometimes do not properly use existing resources like CTS Language Link, a telephone translation service.
"The most difficult challenge, in my opinion, is to have the people who have to implement those procedures on top of doing them," Giusti said.
Carrion agreed that existing resources could be used more effectively.
"We constantly have to be vigilant to make sure that all of us are doing what we need to do, to make sure that we use the tools that we have," she said.
Rachel Boss of the Public Justice Center, a Maryland legal advocacy group, said she accompanied a Spanish-speaking client to District Court in Baltimore in mid-June when security staff asked the man to empty his pockets — instructions the man did not understand. According to an account submitted to the state commission, the security guard raised his voice and said, "Don't you speak English?" before muttering, "Of course not."
"There wasn't any kind of mechanism to deal with people who don't speak English who come to the courthouse," Boss said.
About 3 percent of Maryland households are "linguistically isolated," according to Census Bureau data, meaning no one older than 14 in the household speaks English well. That number, based on a survey sample, has held steady since 2005.
The August letter from the DOJ's civil rights division advised the nation's courts to have interpreters available for free at all criminal and civil proceedings and beyond the courtroom — at detention facilities, anger management classes and parole offices, for instance.
The letter was remarkable, said Robert Cruz of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, because such recommendations typically come in response to an investigation or incident and are directed at a specific jurisdiction.
Carrion said Justice's mandate that language services be offered outside the courthouse will force government branches to figure out who is responsible for paying for which services.
Cruz agreed. "That's going to be the next battle, the 'Who pays?' hot potato," he said.