S.D. courts now offer language help statewide in civil cases for people with limited English skills

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The U.S. Department of Justice says it has resolved a review of the South Dakota Unified Judicial System over court access by people with limited English proficiency who take part in civil cases.

The state’s courts received $50,000 from the South Dakota Legislature to provide language assistance and won approval for a new law that calls for state courts to find and appoint a “disinterested interpreter or translator” when a witness or party needs one in a civil action or special proceeding.

The Justice Department opened the review after receiving a complaint from East River Legal Services in 2020 regarding the decision by Minnehaha County to no longer pay for interpreters in most civil cases.

“The department’s review uncovered language barriers and higher court costs within the UJS that made it difficult for LEP individuals to participate in state civil cases and proceedings,” the DOJ statement said.

South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Jensen responded in part by having legislation introduced on January 20, 2021, that makes the state’s courts responsible to provide interpreters and translators in many civil matters. Not covered are those involving abuse and neglect, a juvenile, involuntary commitment, mental illness, or protection order proceedings.

DOJ’s decision to resolve the civil-rights review was announced in a letter from Christine Stoneman, chief of the federal coordination and compliance section in the department’s Civil Rights Division.

State court administrator Greg Sattizahn outlined the variety of other steps also being taken in a July 31, 2021, letter to the federal department. One was creation of a complaint process that people can use.

“Our goal is to convey the commitment of the UJS to ensure language access and interpreter services to
those involved in the court system in South Dakota” he wrote. “This is demonstrated by our prompt response to the DOJ inquiry with not just a verbal commitment to clarify our processes, but with the implementation of an action plan to continually improve our delivery of interpreter services to court users.”

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