On January 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the resolution and closure of DOJ’s language access investigation of the Louisiana Supreme Court and state courts throughout the state.
According to DOJ, “In May 2019, the Justice Department and [the Louisiana Supreme Court] (LASC) entered into a Memorandum of Agreement to address [language access] complaint[s] under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). Title VI is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin by any recipients of federal financial assistance, including state courts. Since the [Memorandum of Agreement] was signed, LASC has taken a number of remedial actions to improve access for court users across Louisiana who are LEP.”
Commenting on the resolution of its LASC enforcement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke stated:
“Courts across our country must ensure that the courthouse door is open to all, including people with limited English proficiency…”. “We will continue working to ensure that court systems, like the Louisiana Supreme Court, have the policies, practices, interpreters and other resources necessary to ensure access to justice for people with limited English proficiency.”
“With its actions, the Louisiana Supreme Court demonstrated a commitment to ensuring access to state courts in Louisiana for persons who are LEP,” said U.S. Attorney Duane A. Evans for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “My office is committed to addressing all forms of discrimination, including discrimination against persons who are LEP.”
In deciding to close the Louisiana language access in the courts case, DOJ explained that LASC took a number of actions to develop and implement a language access program and expand the availability of free language assistance services for people with LEP in Louisiana.
According to DOJ’s January 17, 2023 letter to the LASC, DOJ listed the Title VI compliance-related changes implemented by the Louisiana Supreme Court. They include:
- Creation of an Office of Language Access (OLA);
- Completion of a language access self-assessment of the Louisiana courts;
- Adoption and publication of the first Language Access Plan for the Louisiana courts;
- Removal of text from Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, Article 192.2, which previously authorized courts to assess persons with LEP for the cost of interpreters;
- Creation of a centralized complaint system that addresses concerns about retaliation and includes an online complaint form in Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Chinese, SeeL: https://www.lasc.org/LanguageComplaints;
- Establishment and maintenance of the Language Access Stakeholder Committee;
- Creation of training modules for judiciary employees and other stakeholders;
- Provision of quarterly language access communications to judges and court staff;
- Creation of language access training protocols, presentations for judges and court personnel, and a language access article in the Louisiana Bar Journal;
- Provision of funding for translated materials for lower courts;
- Adoption of language access plans by local courts;
- Creation of a language access judicial bench card for judges and court staff, See: https://www.lasc.org/court_interpreters/Language_Access_Bench_Card.pdf;
- Appointment of local court Language Access Coordinators; and
- Adoption of Louisiana Supreme Court rules in December 2022, applicable to all Louisiana courts, regarding language access. These rules include a requirement that judges appoint qualified interpreters for court proceedings upon a determination that a party in interest is a person with LEP, See new Language Access Louisiana Court Rules: https://www.lasc.org/Supreme_Court_Rules?p=PartGSection14
Furthermore, as DOJ explained:
“Additionally, training modules listed above will soon be available to the general public on LASC’s website. LASC also plans to translate additional court documents, identified by the Language Access Stakeholder Committee, into non-English languages.
Furthermore, the Louisiana legislature recently urged and requested that the Louisiana State Law Institute examine whether current state law appropriately and adequately addresses interpreter qualifications.”
DOJ’s investigation of Louisiana state courts’ Title VI compliance began at least in 2017.
At that time, 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.”
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… However, the Supreme Court in 2013 confirmed that there were 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.”
As a result of Louisiana’s compliance with DOJ’s 2019 settlement agreement, Louisiana joins several states and their courts, such as Maine, Colorado, Hawaii, and California 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.
Indeed, as NOLA.com reported on the eve of DOJ’s 2017 investigation:
“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.”
© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.
Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney. Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.
Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.