Cultural diversity creates challenge for court systems

From Staff Reports

   Tennessee's increasing diversity provides challenges for judges and court officials as they try to ensure that language barriers are not barriers to equal justice.
   Newcomers to the state sometimes turn to the courts for help or services, such as orders of protection. Others may find themselves before a judge to face criminal charges or resolve a civil dispute. The system can be confusing for anyone, but for those who do not speak or understand English and have no experience with courts in this country, it also could be frightening.
   "The judicial system strives to serve and administer justice equally for all Tennesseans, whether their ancestors were native to the region, arrived in horse-drawn wagons, or whether they are new residents from across a state line or across an ocean," said Chief Justice Frank Drowota III. "It is important to adapt the system as needed and we have taken some important steps to do that."
   The Tennessee Supreme Court, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and judges statewide are taking steps to provide assistance to court-users whose primary language is not English. A critical judicial system initiative will result in statewide standards for court interpreters.
   Testing for prospective interpreters will begin Saturday in Nashville with additional testing Feb. 18 in Memphis. Registration information for the tests and a two-day workshop is available by calling Janice Rodriquez at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute, (615) 741-7579.
   In addition, two proposed Supreme Court rules dealing with interpreter standards and ethics are posted on the court system Web site ( for review and comment. Deadline for comments is March 15.
   Working with a grant from the Office of Criminal Justice Programs, the Administrative Office of the Courts has produced videos in English and six foreign languages judges say they hear most often in their courtrooms: Spanish, Arabic, Kurdish, Lao, Russian and Vietnamese. The videos, which explain basic rights of defendants, orders of protection and the rights of parents in abuse and neglect cases, will be available in courthouses and other locations across the state.
   In another effort to help immigrants, the AOC received a grant from the National Center for State Courts to translate basic criminal practice forms into the same six languages. The court system has included information and other forms in Spanish on its Web site.
   Judges also are becoming better acquainted with readoption requirements as increasing numbers of Tennessee families expand to include children from orphanages in other countries.
   "They're just beautiful children," said Circuit Court Judge Royce Taylor of Murfreesboro, who has handled several readoptions. From malnourished Romanian twins to a little girl from China who was found in a stable, Judge Taylor said, "All of them had a story."