SANTA FE, N.M. — Judge David Segura of Santa Fe County Magistrate Court called his first housing case of the day, a disagreement between Gabriela Herrera and her landlord over a rental payment. In Spanish, Herrera — born in California, raised in Mexico and a resident of this city for six years — recounted her side of the story, fixing her eyes on the judge, whose eyes, in turn, kept shifting to the interpreter translating her words into English in a booming baritone.
It was a typical interaction in the adobe courthouse here, where a rotating cast of interpreters bridges the language divide in housing disputes, traffic infractions, drunken driving hearings and a host of other matters.
It is also such a costly enterprise that for five of the past six fiscal years, the courts in this state — where roughly 1 in 3 residents speaks a language other than English at home — have run out of money to pay not just the interpreters, but also jurors and expert witnesses, whose compensation comes from the same fund.
Last month, in what has become an annual practice, Arthur Pepin, director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, pleaded with the state’s finance board for more money. He said that since he could not stop paying interpreters — they would not work if they were unpaid — he would have to start giving jurors an IOU because the relevant fund was running out of cash.
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Pepin got the extra money, but the problem, he knows, will persist. Even though the fund’s budget has increased by roughly 76 percent since the 2004 fiscal year — to $7.4 million from $4.2 million — demand for interpreters continues to grow faster than the budget’s confines.
“It’s just become one of those headaches that won’t go away,” state Rep. Luciano Varela, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said in an interview.
Many states increasingly look like New Mexico, with its diverse population, and they are grappling with the rising cost of providing interpreters for non-English speakers. In places like Ohio, Kansas and Illinois, where immigrants speaking many different languages have settled in recent years, the courts struggle within financial constraints to meet their obligations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires them to provide interpreters in all civil and criminal proceedings.
In Ohio, for example, the most recent survey of local courts showed that spending on interpreters had increased to $1.1 million in 2010 from $55,000 in 1998, fueled by profound demographic changes.
Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said states had “a civil rights obligation” to find the money to cover the growing costs of court interpreters. Pleading poverty, she said, “cannot insulate state courts systems from compliance.”
The Justice Department, which has watched the problem grow, has cracked down. Samuels’ office has stepped up enforcement in recent years, forcing corrective actions in states like Rhode Island, Colorado and North Carolina.
In North Carolina, the Justice Department found in 2012 that indigent clients had been unnecessarily jailed for weeks, that women had been denied orders of protection against abusive husbands and that at least one mother had lost custody of her children because the courts had not provided interpreters for them.
The state has since introduced a plan that expands the availability of interpreters to all criminal and juvenile proceedings, as well as to cases involving child welfare, eviction, and money and property disputes, among others.
In New Mexico, court interpreters generally work in Spanish or Navajo, mostly at a rate of $47 an hour, excluding driving time and mileage, a significant expense in a state that is far bigger than New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined, Pepin said.
About 36 percent of New Mexico’s 2.1 million residents over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, almost double the national rate. Pepin said that was one reason he had pushed to expand the use of interpreters to all courthouses, even if it has increased costs. So year after year, he has had to seek more money from the Legislature and the eight-member Board of Finance, which he sat before on a recent morning.
New Mexico’s Constitution is the only one in the country that says no U.S. citizen can be excluded from a jury pool, even if the person cannot read or understand English. The State Supreme Court affirmed the provision in 2000, denying a request by Susana Martinez, then the district attorney in Doña Ana County and now the governor, to overturn a lower-court ruling that non-English speakers could not be kept off juries.
Since then, as many as four Spanish-speaking jurors have served at once on the same panel in the border city of Las Cruces, said Pam Sánchez, who manages the language-access program for New Mexico’s judiciary. Last year, Sánchez said, interpreters were called to translate for potential jurors who spoke Navajo, Zuni and Spanish during the selection process in Gallup, in the northwestern corner of the state.