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Speak English? If not, a visit to the Utah courts might cost you cash — despite a federal directive otherwise.

Utah's judicial leaders have preliminarily endorsed a statewide plan that ignores a federal missive to provide free court interpreters to all litigants with limited English proficiency.

The proposal, should it survive the courts' rulemaking process, expands the ability of judges to decide who pays for interpretive services. The plan comes from the Utah Judicial Council, a policymaking body for the judiciary.

"If a person can pay for an interpreter, they should do so," wrote the council's Policy and Planning committee members in a report dated Nov. 22 and presented for endorsement by the council on the same day.

Currently, judges can assign costs to litigants, but the language service is generally offered free. The new plan widens the possibility for judges to assign costs.

In adopting the changes, council members were aware of a U.S. Department of Justice letter that directs Utah and other states to provide the service for free when "meaningful" access to court proceedings require interpretations.

Thomas E. Perez, an assistant U.S. attorney general, authored the letter, which was dated Aug. 16. Charging for services, he argues, might violate civil rights laws.

"DOJ expects that ... courts will provide interpreters at no cost to persons involved," Perez wrote.

Perez believes the state's use of federal funds, plus enforcing Title VI of the federal civil rights acts, supports the federal argument for a widely accessible no-cost program.

The idea of updating the state interpretive services program came from a council committee that had been asked to study the program for the last year.

The committee, as part of the study, surveyed more than 20 states and found interpreter services were offered in a variety of case types and circumstances.

"Our existing program is one of the best in the country," said Tim Shea, a senior staff attorney who helps administer the Utah court system.

Council members, mostly judges from around the state, accepted the committee arguments that Utah could deviate from the Perez directive based on a different view of the civil rights acts and how it applies to offering language services.

The council voted to support the committee plan, knowing Utah and others states could be challenged and perhaps sued over charging fees.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham hopes a proposed expansion of interpretive services would make Utah less of a prime target for any such challenge. The rule change would expand the service to all case types and improving training and testing of interpreters.

"The fact that Utah will have taken steps, moved ourselves down the road, may well put us way down the line for federal attention," said Durham.

In the summer letter to states about implementing the language program, Perez re-emphasizes what he believes may be intentional discrimination when courts do not expand their efforts to comply with Title VI.

"DOJ has observed that some court systems continue to operate in apparent violation of federal law," he wrote.

Officials for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ declined on Tuesday to review the Utah plan but included a copy of the Perez letter when asked for a comment on the council's decision.

The committee recommendations could go into effect in April of 2011 after allowing for public comment on the plan and final adoption by the council.

About the program

In 2010, providing interpreters in state courts cost taxpayers $897,000, and interpreters were called on 8,400 times. The state has offered interpretation in more than 50 languages.

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