On May 13, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a settlement with the Louisiana Supreme Court (LSC) to resolve complaints of national origin and language based discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the state courts of Louisiana. The settlement will ensure provision of oral and written language assistance in all state court operations at no cost to limited English proficient people (LEP), DOJ stated.
“This agreement resolves a Department of Justice investigation of a complaint alleging that Louisiana state courts failed to provide language access for LEP individuals, including a failure to provide LEP individuals with qualified interpreters in civil proceedings, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations (Title VI). The agreement is a commitment by the LSC to work with the Department of Justice to ensure the consistent delivery of language assistance services in the Louisiana Judiciary.
During the course of the investigation, LSC began taking steps to improve language services in state courts by retaining a Language Access Coordinator responsible for continuing to improve the LSC’s efforts and initiatives to comply with Title VI. LSC also developed technical assistance tools and provided trainings to Louisiana state court judges about how to address encounters with LEP individuals.
Among other commitments in the agreement, the LSC will conduct an assessment of the Louisiana Judiciary to further inform the development of a more robust language access program. The LSC will also work with the Department of Justice to create a statewide language access plan that will include a template so that each state court can develop its own plan.”
Concerns about Louisiana state courts’ compliance date to least 2017 when NOLA.com reported that “The judicial system in Louisiana is still struggling to meet requirements to provide interpreters for people who do not speak English, especially in rural areas and in certain municipal courts – even though interpreting services are required by law.” Indeed, as DOJ itself admits, the federal agency began its investigation in October 2017, at approximately the same time as NOLA.com reported state courts’ difficulties with providing language assistance and complying with Title VI.
As NOLA.com further reported:
…[I]n some cases, litigants and their lawyers must make the effort to find their own interpreters and often the client must pay the cost. The state also does not require interpreters to be certified by the court system.
Attorneys with Catholic Charities’ immigration and refugee services in New Orleans explained that they sometimes have to plan ahead depending on the court and coordinate with one of their staff interpreters. “It creates a logistical problem for us,” said managing attorney Homero Lopez.
The organization has to keep track of the municipal courts that require clients to bring their own interpreters and courts that offer the service without additional costs. In some cases, the family will have to cover the cost of the service,” said Julie Ward, the director of immigration and refugee services with Catholic Charities. “We are lucky for now to have the funds and trained staff to help in those cases.
A Serious Lack of Interpreters
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Louisiana recognized that the lack of qualified interpreters in state courts was creating an unbalanced system for residents who weren’t English proficient. That year the state developed their interpreter training program for the courts… There are only 15 certified interpreters from the program and 144 “registered” interpreters, those who were only able to complete the written exam, in Louisiana. They are fluent in 15 languages including Spanish, Vietnamese, Polish and German.”
The settlement includes multiple requirements and provisions.
For example, LSC agreed to retain “a full-time dedicated attorney to serve as the [courts’ Language Assistance Coordinator] LAC, and she is primarily responsible for continuing to improve LSC’s efforts and initiatives concerning compliance with Title VI.”
New Language Plan
To facilitate Title VI compliance, The Chief Justice of Louisiana must inform, “in writing, Court Staff and the Clerks of Court for each state court in Louisiana of [the DOJ settlement] and the LEP Commitment. The LSC will inform, in writing, Court Staff and the Clerks of Court for each state court in Louisiana about the language access self-assessment, [and] the development of the language access program…”
There are various mandatory reporting requirements to DOJ. Louisiana must develop Title VI training and train “state court judges and other Court Staff, in person or online, with the first training occurring within 180 days” of the DOJ settlement. For one-year after the settlement, LSC must submit all Title VI training to DOJ for the department’s review.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is further required to develop a federally compliant Language Access Plan (LAP) within one-year off the DOJ settlement. This plan must:
“… contain a phased-in approach to expand and improve language assistance services, consistent with the LEP Commitment and Title VI.
The LAP will address how to provide LEP individuals with translated paper and electronic notice about how to access interpreter services, provide translated paper and electronic court forms and information, explain the process for each court to collect and report interpreter use information to the LSC, and create a process for language access complaints.
The LAP will include a language access plan template that each state court in Louisiana may use in developing an individual court language access plan that addresses the unique needs of that specific court.”
Louisiana now joins several states and their courts, such as Maine, Hawaii, California, and Arizona, in resolving Title VI discrimination complaints and in implementing language assistance programs. Essentially, as demonstrated in Louisiana, federally compliant language assistance is all in the planning. The myriad complexities of Title VI compliance are best handled through detailed plans, procedures, and policies.
Such effort is necessary to alleviate and prevent national origin and language-based discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Good wishes and aspirational thoughts are not enough, as Louisiana discovered in 2019.
“Under federal law, all courts are required to provide language assistance to people who do not speak English in civil and criminal proceedings and for court programs and services… I think it is necessary for there to be some uniformity for people to receive the same level of service,” he said.
… Laws requiring certified interpreters for all courts is a step in the right direction… But at the same time keep in mind that rural courts need to have the same level of access to these services as the higher courts,” said Tim Tyler, assistant judicial administrator for Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court.”
Check out some of Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law.
© Bruce L. Adelson 2019, special for Bromberg, All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.
Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.
Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches Implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.
Beginning in June 2019, he will teach again at Cornell University.