Michigan Judge Inadvertantly Underlines Need for Changes in Language Access

In a week during which we have been given another opportunity to reflect upon the benefits of integrating people from all backgrounds into our richly varied country, we are — albeit unintentionally — reminded by a Michigan Judge of how far, even a system that is supposed to be about justice, has to go.  We are also given hope that the court system understands its responsibilities.

As reported by the Michigan Oceana County Press, Judge Terrence R. Thomas, of that state’s 27th Circuit, became annoyed when a defendant facing a cocaine possession charge brought an interpreter to court, rejecting his plea offer:

Thomas scolded Juan Leonel Estrada for wasting the court’s resources. “You don’t really need an interpreter,” Thomas said.  “You don’t impress the court by using another resource of the court that you don’t need.”

Estrada’s attorney, Doug Springstead, told the judge that Estrada is “fairly fluent,” but utilized an interpreter because he was nervous and doesn’t understand legal language. “The legal vocabulary is different from the English vocabulary,” Springstead said.

“It is for everybody,” Thomas retorted.

“I’m not going to play these games with this baloney,” the judge said. “Why is this court paying for a translator? I think you’ve misused the process of the court. I think you’re playing a game with me.”

.  .  .

The judge was so irked that he rejected Estrada’s plea and set the case for trial. “You’re going to pay for a translator at trial,” he told Estrada. “We’ll set the trial for as early as we can before the end of the year, and he might learn English in the meantime.”

In a final incomprehensible burst the judge ordered him to surrender his driving license:

“If you can’t understand English, how the heck did you get a Michigan driver’s license?” the judge asked. “You will surrender your driver’s license today.  Anybody who has a driver’s license and doesn’t understand English can plead guilty to a cocaine charge.  He’s getting his driver’s license suspended until he understands English and is safe on the road. He’s a threat to the public.

 When given an opportunity by this blog to comment, the Michigan Courts replied:

The Michigan Supreme Court and the State Court Administrative Office are committed to steadfast compliance with court rules regarding protections for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP).  We are aware of this case and will ensure the local trial court is fully cognizant of its responsibilities under MCR 1.111. [Interpreter rule – link added]

It does not take a lot of skill to read between the lines of this response.

More generally, however, we have to ask what changes in the system would help avoid these kind of embarrassing events. (see , e.g., my recent posts on the “electric shock judge”.)

P.S. We now also hear from the Oceana County Press that Judge Thomas has asked to be appointed Sheriff upon his mandatory retirement from the bench on Jan 1, triggered by his age.  No comment needed or offered.

Update:  a new pretrial date has been set, and “’I am certain that the case will move forward, and there will be a resolution acceptable to both sides,’ said Estrada’s court-appointed attorney Doug Springstead.” according to the Oceans County Free Press.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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