A federal lawsuit filed this week alleges that Bradley County General Sessions Court has violated non-English speaking defendants' civil rights by making them pay for interpreters.
Attorneys on both sides of the case said the issue has state and national implications.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga by Flores Vidal Enriquez and Mark Weissenberg, states that the Bradley County General Sessions Court charged Enriquez for interpreter services provided by Weissenberg.
The U.S. Department of Justice has maintained for at least a decade that a defendant's right to a fair trial includes the right to interpreter services at court expense.
"This is an important issue for our community. As the complaint states, many residents need an interpreter in order to have meaningful access to our courts," said attorney Travis McDonough with the Miller & Martin law firm in an email Friday. He and Kevin Hudson represent the plaintiffs.
The suit seeks an injunction to stop the Bradley court from charging for interpreter services and undisclosed compensation for Weissenberg, who claims he wasn't paid for interpreting work.
But Bradley County Attorney Joe Byrd said the rule is in direct conflict with Tennessee Supreme Court rules, which require that interpreter services be included in court costs if a defendant is not indigent.
"The question is, can you ever charge a defendant court costs for an interpreter?" he said. "You're looking at something that's across the state of Tennessee and in other states. It's an issue that needs to be settled, not just for Bradley County, not just for Tennessee."
Enriquez had been charged with simple assault and was required to appear four times in Sessions Court before his charges were dismissed. The court then assessed him court costs for Weissenberg's interpreting, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that courts are violating civil rights by discriminating based on national origin. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that linguistic ability is tied to national origin.
Rosemary Dann, chairwoman of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters in Washington, D.C., said the practice of charging for interpreters isn't isolated to Bradley County.
"Unfortunately, this happens with more frequency than we would like," she said. "It's not going to start getting addressed until court cases are brought regarding violations of civil rights."
Last August, the U.S. Justice Department sent a letter to state Supreme Court chief justices and court administrators nationwide, instructing courts to maintain access to interpreters at no charge.
Laura Klein Abel, the deputy director of the justice program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, has researched access to interpreters in state courts nationwide. She said providing interpreters isn't for the defendant only; it helps the entire judicial process.
KEY POINTS OF LAWSUIT
• "Bradley County has intentionally discriminated against Hispanic limited English proficiency persons on the basis of race, color, and national origin by requiring them to pay for interpreters in order to communicate in court proceedings."
• "(T)he specter of paying interpreter costs creates leverage to discourage a Hispanic limited English proficiency defendant from having his or her day in court and, instead, to choose to plead guilty without regard for the merits of the charge."
• "It would be unjust for Bradley County to attempt to meet constitutional and statutory obligations to Hispanic limited English proficiency defendants in Bradley County General Sessions Court at Mr. Weissenberg's expense when Bradley County, not Mr. Weissenberg, holds the obligation to allow Hispanic limited English proficiency defendants meaningful access to its courts."
"It goes to the public's perception of the court's fairness, which is something that we all have to worry about," she said.
Across the country, Abel said, more courts are providing interpreters free of charge as the Justice Department instructs, but some court systems do not.
"It's surprising because it's been clear for at least a decade that this is a violation of the Civil Rights Act," she said. "So whenever you have a court that's charged with enforcing the law actually breaking the law, it's always surprising."
Rob Cruz is a director of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters who lives in Athens, Tenn. and has worked in Bradley County's juvenile and criminal courts. He said he has not seen defendants charged for interpreter services in either of those courts, but has heard of the practice in Sessions Court.
"Part of the problem is Bradley County does not have a policy in place that says what happens when a person needs an interpreter and can afford one," he said.
If the court rules that a person cannot afford an interpreter, state funds reimburse the county for the interpreter's fees of about $40 per hour.
Cruz said he advised Byrd and Bradley County Court Clerk Gayla Miller on ways to change the Sessions Court policy in recent months.
Byrd confirmed that he and the clerk spoke with Cruz, but said the courts are still bound by state Supreme Court rules.