November 25, 2010
Access and the Right to an Interpreter
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in Ling v. State that a criminal defendant who spoke Mandarin Chinese, and not English, "may be effectively incompetent to proceed in a criminal matter and rendered effectively absent at trial if no interpreter is provided." Op. at 2.
The court connected English language skills and meaningful access to the legal system through Drope v. Missouri and mental incompetence. The court explained:
A criminal defendant's "right to be present at all stages of the trial where his absence might frustrate the fairness of the proceedings" is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The due process clause also precludes trial and conviction of an accused while he or she is mentally incompetent. . . . In Drope . . . for example, the U.S. Supreme Court discussed the history of the prohibition against trying mentally incompetent individuals, noting that some have viewed it "as a by-product of the ban against trials in absentia; the mentally incompetent defendant, though physically present in the courtroom, is in reality afforded no opportunity to defend himself. . . . One who is unable to communicate effectively in English and does not receive an interpreter's assistance is no more competent to proceed than an individual who is incompetent due to mental incapacity.
Op. at 5-6. In short: A non-English-speaking criminal defendant is denied access every bit as much as a mentally incompetent defendant, unless the State provides an interpreter. (The court quoted its 2005 case, Ramos v. Terry: "The use of qualified interpreters is necessary to preserve meaningful access to the legal system for persons who speak and understand only languages other than English." Op. at 3.)
The court remanded "to apply the standard in Drope and to state its findings on the record."
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