North Carolina's courts are violating the rights of people who speak little or no English by failing to provide free interpreters in civil cases, according to a federal complaint.
Charlotte's Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society have joined together to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and stop what they say is discrimination in the N.C. courts.
Although the state provides interpreters for indigent defendants in criminal cases, advocates say limited-English speakers are routinely subjected to civil court proceedings they don't understand.
When Miguel Angel Osorio went to small claims court in March 2010, he wanted to tell the judge his boss gave him a $2,000 paycheck that bounced. The court did not provide him an interpreter and he couldn't afford one. The judge told Osorio he couldn't understand him, Osorio said, and dismissed the case.
"I didn't have even a dollar for an interpreter," he said. "I'm trying to go to court for help, but instead it's costing more money."
The issue is playing out across the country. It gained attention last summer when the Obama administration issued an opinion warning that states that don't provide interpreters in all court cases - both civil and criminal - would be in violation Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
A 2009 study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly half of the 35 states examined did not require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases.
Interpreters not only assist litigants who struggle with English, they also ensure attorneys and judges understand the litigant and can be confident their instructions are being understood.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts spends about $2.4 million for 207 interpreters speaking 60 different languages. Their services are offered to indigent defendants in criminal cases and some domestic violence cases.
Despite last year's federal opinion, state court officials say they believe current services comply with federal law and offer meaningful access to the courts for those with limited English proficiency.
Spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said it would cost an estimated $1.4 million to expand the services to all cover civil cases.
Attorney Jack Holtzman of the N.C. Justice Center, who filed the complaint on behalf of the three nonprofits, said the state has failed to make courts accessible to non-English speakers, and to translate court documents and websites.
"We don't want people to bypass the court system," he said. "The alternative is chaos. That is the one thing that separates us from other counties around the world - a fair and accessible court system."
Ron Woodard, whose NC Listen group advocates for greater immigration restrictions, said the courts should provide interpreter services for all citizens who need it, as well as for illegal immigrants facing criminal charges. But tax dollars should not be spent to expand interpreters for illegal immigrants involved in civil cases.
"If people are here illegally and it's not a criminal case, they ought to go back to their home country to sort out their problems," he said. "And if they're going to sort it out here, they ought to at least pay for their own interpreter."