Monday, July 06, 2009

Language and immigration in the courts

Kudos to Judge Richard S. Brown, a state appellate judge here in Wisconsin. The NYT last week did a long piece called:

Study Finds Gaps in Aid for Non-English Speakers in State Civil Courts

Here are the key quotes from Brown:
“If a person cannot understand what is happening in the courtroom proceeding, an unfair result might occur. And that is contradictory to what we want our courts to do: administer justice, fairly and impartially.”

“I wonder aloud how many immigrants from the 1840s through the 1920s lost their liberty, lost their property, lost their homes, their livelihood, all because they could not yet understand the English language to the fullest,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Judge Brown, who is deaf, said, “I think we are a better country because we are now acknowledging what we did not acknowledge in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
A couple of posts on this blog have talked about recent (and apparently ongoing) work by Wilkerson & Salmons showing that German-speaking immigrants did not learn English for generations in many cases. They draw, as it happens, on evidence including Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions involving Yankees who swindled immigrants who didn't speak English. They also tell me that there are newspaper reports on court cases where Wisconsin-born citizens could not respond to simple questions in English.

So, yes, Judge Brown, the historical record bears you out. Thank you.


alai said...

My grandparents' generation (born in the late 1920s) were the first of their families, who had lived in Louisiana since the 1700s, to learn any English at all. My grandmother wasn't the greatest -- she didn't learn it until later in life -- but my grandfather learnt it during WWII out of necessity.

My grandfather was in and out of the courts in the 50-60s in drawn-out patent hearings. He attributed most of his losses to his poor English.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't only immigrants who were swindled in the courts. Illiterate people had no idea what was happening either. I wonder if the courts are acknowledging that as well?

Mr. Verb said...

Good point, of course, and I don't know the answer.