The Language of Justice

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While Yakima’s focus has been on City Council elections in the aftermath of Judge Thomas Rice’s ruling that the city was in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, much work remains to accomplish equality for all throughout the Yakima Valley. One area in particular is the judiciary.

According to the U.S. Census, 47 percent of Yakima County’s population is Latino and more than 40 percent of households speak another language besides English at home. Yet out of the 15 judges and commissioners in Yakima County Superior Court and Yakima County District Court, not one is Latino nor speaks Spanish fluently.

This lack of access to justice for such a majority of the Valley’s population is troubling. As an attorney who goes to the courthouse frequently, it pains me to witness non-English-speaking individuals struggling to navigate through the court’s legal process. Their needs can be dire and not everyone has the luxury to afford an attorney who can help them.

The court clerk’s office does its best to provide translators and guidance, but this is insufficient. What is truly needed is a judge or commissioner who speaks Spanish fluently. A judge or commissioner who can engage directly with the people will help build trust between the courts and the people who make up a large portion of the population, Latinos. This trust is another much-needed step to move Yakima forward in its long path to equality.

One program that Yakima County courts should aspire to adopt is the Spanish-language court that the Honorable Judge Veronica Alicea Galván founded in the Des Moines Municipal Court where she formerly presided. In Des Moines, which has a population one-eighth the size of Yakima County and 15 percent are Latino, Judge Galván regularly conducted two Spanish-language court sessions a month in which she directly engaged with those before her. This became an enormous success. It lowered the court costs associated with the hiring of translators. Most importantly, such a program not only overcomes the obvious language barrier, but allows a judge to fully understand the situation and have the individual explain himself or herself without the use of an interpreter, which can be impersonal, awkward and easily lead to misunderstanding. In sum, it expands the access to justice, and allows the Spanish-speaking individuals of our community to feel like a judge truly heard them.

This is by no means a critique of the current judges or commissioners. They are all very well-qualified and do their best to provide the law equally and equitably regardless of language or race. Instead, this is a suggestion on how Yakima can continue in its progress toward achieving equality. Such a move by the Yakima County courts will expand the access to justice that is desperately needed in the Yakima Valley, build further trust, empower minority communities and ensure that the one language that truly matters — the language of justice — prevails for all.

To see Sergio’s article as printed in the Yakima Herald, click here.