Court Rules That Defendants With Limited English Proficiency Have A Constitutional Right To Court Interpreters

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Rachel Myers, ACLU, (212) 549-2689 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Debbie Seagraves, ACLU of Georgia, (770) 303-8111; info@acluga.org
Araceli Martínez-Olguín, LAS-ELC, (415) 864-8848; amartinez-olguin@las-elc.org 

Court Rules That Defendants With Limited English Proficiency Have A Constitutional Right To Court Interpreters

ACLU Filed Friend-Of-The-Court Brief In Case Before Georgia Supreme Court

ATLANTA - The
Supreme Court of Georgia ruled today that defendants with limited
English proficiency (LEP) have a constitutional right to court
interpreters in criminal trials. The ruling came in a case in which 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 asserting that denying LEP defendants interpreters violates the
U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

"The court acknowledged that 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 guarantee of due process applies to everyone in this
country, not just fluent English-speakers."

The ACLU and LAS-ELC submitted their
brief on behalf of Annie Ling, a Mandarin Chinese-speaker who was
sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years probation after a trial
without any 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 facing a much longer sentence. At her trial, she
could not understand the testimony for or against her. Her own trial
attorney admitted that because of Ling's limited English skills, he
could not properly communicate with her without an interpreter. However,
the attorney 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."

Ling's conviction was appealed to the
Georgia Supreme Court, which today vacated the ruling upholding her
conviction and sent her case back to the Georgia trial court.

"In America, state justice systems
are required to ensure that all people, regardless of their primary
language, have equal access to a fair trial and that includes the right
to an interpreter and competent legal counsel," said Araceli
Martínez-Olguín, an attorney with LAS-ELC. "A person's guilt or
innocence cannot be fairly determined at a trial that is
incomprehensible to the defendant."

The ACLU's and LAS-ELC's brief argued
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, 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. The court's opinion agreed with
the groups' brief that the right to an interpreter is guaranteed by the
Sixth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Georgia Supreme Court also instructed all Georgia state courts to
practice "vigilance in protecting the rights of non-English-speakers"
and to provide "meaningful access" to LEP individuals in order to comply
with Title VI.

Attorneys on the case, Ling v. Georgia,
are Jennifer Chang Newell and David Wakukawa (a volunteer attorney) of
the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, Shahshahani and Chara Fisher
Jackson of the ACLU of Georgia and Martínez-Olguín of the Legal Aid
Society - Employment Law Center.

The ACLU's brief can be found online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/ling-v-state-georgia-amicus-brief

The court's decision can be found at: www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/ling-v-state-georgia-decision

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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