Judge Christopher Bowen called his next case from the bench of his family law courtroom in Contra Costa County, just east of San Francisco. The two parties -- Maria Plascencia and Guillermo Castorena -- took their seats at a long wooden table in front of him. As the clerk swore them in, the former couple faced forward, never making eye contact.
Between them sat a woman in her mid-30s with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses: Jessica McBride. Vital to the proceedings, McBride was not a witness or a lawyer; she is the court’s Spanish-language interpreter. As the judge spoke she murmured along, translating words almost as quickly as she heard them.
“What did he do with the knife and the belt?” Through the interpreter, Bowen sought to clarify the allegations against Castorena before making a ruling on a restraining order.
It’s hard to imagine, but court interpreters like McBride haven’t always been provided, even in domestic violence cases.
“The statute required it, but only if funding was available,” Contra Costa Presiding Superior Court Judge Steven Austin said. “So most courts tried very hard to cover that, but they couldn’t always cover it.”
But that is starting to change, Austin is on a task force the State Supreme Court set up this year to roll out its Language Access Plan. Launched in January 2015, Austin said one of the first things the task force did was expand court interpreter services to domestic violence cases. But it is not stopping there. Its aim is to make the California justice system accessible to all Californians -- from court signs and forms to all court proceedings.
While California’s state constitution requires that interpreters be provided in criminal cases, up until now civil matters -- from eviction hearings to custody battles -- haven’t been covered. And Austin says the ad hoc interpreters people bring in are untrained. Some are even children.
“It’s completely inappropriate when you have a family law case to have the child who is the subject of the case being the one who comes in to interpret,” Austin said.
The plan is almost a year in, but the full implementation of it is a vast project that has only just started, according to California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who chairs the task force. At 43, Cuéllar has already had an illustrious career serving in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Now, as a California Supreme Court justice, Cuéllar has set an ambitious goal for his task force.
“We have 7 million Californians who speak a language primarily other than English and have limited English proficiency. That’s 200 different languages spoken across 164,000 square miles,” Cuéllar said.
He says the biggest challenge, though, is just communicating that it's both doable and affordable.
“We’re going to try to keep the cost as low as we can so that we can cover this in a way that is fair to everybody and that is fair to California’s taxpayers,” he said.
Currently, court interpreters cost the state about $94.6 million, but Cuéllar said the expansion would take even more. In order to figure out how much more, the task force is assessing what the need is and how to meet it. By looking at what’s happening in California’s 58 counties, Cuéllar said his task force is learning what works.
“You’ve got L.A. doing the family court expansion,” he said. “You’ve got San Francisco also doing a very serious civil expansion. You’ve got Ventura using a very good framework for dealing with its interpreters. Fresno looking at using video where appropriate.”
In Contra Costa’s family court, Maria Plascencia headed outside after her hearing. Judge Bowen granted the restraining order in her case. During the hearing there was a whole range of questions that both parties needed to understand and settle, from who’s included in the restraining order to when the kids can visit their father. Plascencia said having the interpreter helped her through this difficult process.
“You always feel more comfortable in your own language,” she said. “And you know the decisions the judge is making.”
Austin, the presiding judge, said it’s not just Californians who speak limited English who are helped.
“For me as a judge, it’s really great to be able to have people tell me their story,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing.”
Contra Costa’s interpreter services are funded for the next year, but its ability to continue expanding coverage for civil proceedings will be up to the Legislature and the governor.