Gregory Snowden, left, director of the Administrative Office of Courts, talks to prospective court language interpreters on Nov. 4. 2022. Deenie Miller, standing right, is the office's Language Access coordinator. Credit: Beverly Kraft/Administrative Office of Courts

The Mississippi court system is training multilingual court interpreters to ensure equal access to justice for people whose primary language isn’t English. 

“If a litigant comes into a courtroom and doesn’t speak English, then there is no access to justice without a qualified court interpreter,” said Deenie Miller, language access coordinator for the state’s Administrative Office of Courts. “Their job is to put someone on equal footing as someone who speaks English as a native language.” 

Court interpreters also help judges administer justice by helping them communicate with a person who isn’t proficient in English, she said. 

About 105,500 Missisisppians – nearly 4% of the population – speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Spanish is the top requested language for court interpreting, Miller said, and that need is growing in central Mississippi. 

Other top languages requested include Vietnamese, Mandarin and French, she said. 

Patricia Ice, legal project director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, has worked with people needing court interpreter services in state and federal court. She agreed that language access is necessary for someone to access justice. 

Before the Administrative Office of the Courts began training, certifying and recruiting interpreters, it could be difficult to find one for clients, Ice said. 

Sometimes she found interpreters from the court’s roster, and other times it was more of a challenge to get someone who spoke an indigenous or less common language. 

“It’s important that the court system be sensitive to the languages that people are hearing and speaking in the courts,” she said.

Miller is looking to build a roster of court interpreters certified to speak in various languages to work in circuit, county, chancery and justice courts around the state. She can also receive referrals if someone on her roster can’t interpret for a requested language. 

So far, there are 26 people on the court’s roster who can interpret in Arabic, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish, according to an interpreter search page through the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

“You never know what part of the world someone will be from,” Miller said. “The need is great for qualified court interpreters.” 

Miller, who became the language access coordinator in July, is in charge of recruiting, training and certifying language interpreters and working with judges, attorneys and court staff about requirements to provide interpreters for those with limited English proficiency. 

The Administrative Office of the Courts held a language court interpretation training and certification test in November in Jackson. 

Thirteen participants from around the state and beyond received an introduction to court proceedings, the role of a language interpreter, ways to interpret, ethical requirements and credentialing requirements. 

The office has held language court interpreter training several times a year for nearly a decade. Miller is hoping to revamp the seminar and host it four times a year alongside exams for people to become certified interpreters. 

In addition to recruiting interpreters, Miller is working on ways to ensure language access in courthouses, such as having forms and signs available in Spanish and other languages. 

She also would like to secure funding to fund interpreters so the expense doesn’t always have to come from the county or a judge. Miller doesn’t want money to be the deciding factor of whether a person can access an interpreter. 

Court interpreters are independent contractors who negotiate their own rates with the court, a county or an attorney, she said. 

Miller worked as a paralegal for over 20 years before becoming the language access coordinator. Although she is new to language access work, Miller said she is passionate and looks forward to what she can do in the role. 

The Administrative Office of Courts has requested funding for her position for several years, she said. As the population of people with limited English proficiency has grown in the state, the Legislature recognized the importance of having someone in the position full-time, Miller said. 

“This position was fought for and I’m excited to be the office’s first language access coordinator,” she said. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.