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Georgia high court rules non-English speaking defendants have right to interpreter

The Supreme Court of Georgia [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday that defendants with limited English proficiency have a constitutional right to court interpreters in criminal trials. The court's decision overturned the Georgia Court of Appeals [official website] ruling denying the defendant's motion for a new trial. Annie Ling, whose native language is Mandarin Chinese, filed the motion after a jury convicted her of cruelty to children in the first degree. Ling argued that her trial counsel failed to secure an interpreter for trial, instead relying on her husband to help convey a last minute plea agreement offer. The court held that lack of an interpreter can impede a defendant's right to be present at trial in violation of the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause [texts] of the US Constitution. The court held that "when a question is raised in a motion for new trial as to whether a criminal defendant's due process rights have been violated by the absence of a qualified interpreter, the trial court must make and explain its findings on the issue on the record." The court remanded the case to the trial court in order for a finding of fact regarding Ling's claim regarding the trial counsel's failure to convey the prosecution's final plea agreement offer.

Rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] have spoken out in support of court interpreters for defendants with limited English proficiency. The ACLU, which submitted a brief [text, PDF] on behalf of Ling, released a statement [press release] Monday applauding the court's decision. In response to the decision, Azadeh Shahshahani, Director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia said, "The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to everyone in this country, not just fluent English-speakers." The ACLU has also opposed [press release] a bill [text] voted on by the Virginia legislature which would require non-English speaking defendants to pay for interpreters at their criminal trials. The bill passed the House but was halted by the Senate's Committee for Courts of Justice.

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