For bilingual judge, there’s no translating the language of justice

Bilingual court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan
Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan ran an ad hoc dual-language courtroom in Des Moines. (Photo by Ellen Banner / The Seattle Times)

Veronica Alicea Galván didn’t mean to start the only bilingual courtroom in Washington state. It just kind of…happened.

“We had…a Spanish interpreter, but they didn’t appear,” explains Galván looking out on the Des Moines Municipal Court where she presides, “So here I had a room full of people who were waiting to tell me why they were speeding.”

Galván, only a few months into her tenure at the court she affectionately calls “Muni,” had come up against one of the challenges of running a courtroom in an international community (nearby Tukwila school district is considered one of the most diverse in the nation) — language barriers.

But for this Eastern Washingtonian, who grew up splitting her time between Pasco and her father’s native Chihuahua, Mexico, the solution was clear.

“I thought… ‘I speak Spanish and they speak Spanish’ so I just started talking to them in Spanish,” remembers Galván , “And I said in Spanish ‘Why were you speeding?’ And they told me in Spanish why they were speeding.”

It may sound like a straightforward stopgap, but Galván says the idea was so popular (with the Spanish speaking community and with the Court, which was pleased to save money on Spanish speaking interpreters) that it stuck. Over the past seven years Galván has regularly conducted about two Spanish language court sessions a month — each session serving around 30 people.

Washington is required by law to provide court interpreters for non-English speakers — a feat for a state where hundreds of languages are spoken. But Galván remembers a time back in the 1970s, before interpreters were legally required when as a ten year-old she had to translate for her Dad at a traffic ticket hearing.

As a result, she has a profound respect for court interpreters. She’s quick to point out that what she does isn’t “interpret” (that would mean simultaneously listening and speaking, which requires specific training) but instead engaging in “direct communication”— something she feels is crucial to building trust between the courts and the people.

Judge Veronica Alicea Galván presides over the Des Moines Municipal Court last week. She was recently appointed to the King County Superior Court. (Photo by Ellen Banner / The Seattle Times)
Judge Veronica Alicea Galván presides over the Des Moines Municipal Court last week. She was recently appointed to the King County Superior Court. (Photo by Ellen Banner / The Seattle Times)

“There’s an intrinsic value in knowing that the person that you’re before understands what you’re saying and that you get to be responsible for your own words,” says Galván who believes bilingual courts are particularly impactful at the municipal level, where most Americans come in contact with the system.

That value was quickly demonstrated a few minutes later when court opened for a regular, English language session. The rows of folding chairs quickly filled with a diverse group; a young man with his hat crumpled in his hand (after an order from the court clerk to remove it), a nervous mother and teenage daughter, bundled up seniors, a small family with a protesting toddler.

The first people called before Galván were those that needed translation services. A deep dial tone filled the room before an interpreter came on the line.

The exchange, via speakerphone Vietnamese, between Judge Galván and an elderly woman contesting a traffic ticket was brief and functional. But at times it was also confusing and pretty impersonal. In contrast, English-speaking defendants offered detailed explanations for their violations and even chuckled at some of Galván’s jokes (she’s not updating her Facebook status on that computer in front of her, just checking case files).

Galván knows that not all courts can be bilingual — there are too many languages to consider and it’s much harder to implement in higher level courts where the language skills of attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, juries and court reporters all come into play (in municipal court it’s just judges and citizens interacting). Even so Galván predicts a future when bilingual courts are more common, especially in Spanish, the second most widely spoken language in the United States after English.

But for now, Des Moines’ bilingual court will be shutting down. Last month Galván was appointed to the King County Superior Court bench and her last dual-language “Muni” session will be January 20th.

She says she’s not sure how she’ll be able to employ her language skills at the new job, but she imagines she’ll find a way.

After all, she reminds me with a wide smile, it’s the “language of justice” that’s most important.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
Sarah Stuteville

1 Comment

  1. Well written article, but I’m afraid that a statement like “Galván predicts a future when bilingual courts are more common” it’s overly simplistic and that not looking at the whole picture could be dangerous, even at the “muni” level.

    For instance, we can assume that speakers of languages other than English are usually recent immigrants, and that most court users at the municipal level are pro se litigants who most likely will be unaware of the consequences on their immigration status if they plead to something when resolving DUI, shoplifting or domestic violence cases. We could also have instances where the court committed an error, or where the laws change (i.e. marihuana possession). So my point is how are the litigants in these bilingual sessions supposed to look for relief or appeal to a higher court if the records are in a language other than English? The cost of translating those transcripts will be prohibitive whether they’re charged directly to the court users or to the municipality’s tax payers.

    I think that as of today the only way to avoid this kind of conflicts while complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is by providing qualified certified/approved/sworn court interpreters (name changes depending on jurisdiction) who will be able to maintain the record clear and in English. Now, we don’t know the details on why the interpreter for the session that started all of this didn’t appear, but if this is happening on a regular basis it’s simply because this court is not hiring (paying the rate for) professional interpreters. So, maybe increasing the rate of the court interpreter might just be a more effective, cost efficient solution for the court, the litigants and the tax payers than throwing a monkey wrench into the system that could trigger expensive litigations and DOJ audits.

    Jorge V.

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