Celebrating 50 Years of Language Access in Nebraska Courts: A Milestone of Inclusion and Justice

Celebrating 50 Years of Language Access in Nebraska Courts: A Milestone of Inclusion and Justice

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Op-ed by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael G. Heavican

The Nebraska Judicial Branch is commemorating the Legislature’s passage of Neb. Rev. Stat. §25-2401 - Interpreters; public policy. This milestone not only acknowledges our commitment to a fair and impartial legal system, but also highlights the need for continued progress and improvement to ensure deaf, hard of hearing, and limited English proficient (LEP) court users have access to our courts and probation services.  

Before the implementation of language access services in the Nebraska Judicial Branch, individuals who did not speak English faced significant barriers when seeking justice. They often struggled to understand court proceedings, couldn’t effectively communicate with their attorneys, and were at a disadvantage when trying to defend their rights; likewise, judges, jurors, and lawyers could not understand non-English speaking litigants and witnesses.

However, half a century ago Nebraska took a significant step forward with the introduction of language access services, changing the landscape of our legal system. The establishment of language access services demonstrated the state’s dedication to upholding the principles of the U.S. Constitution, including the right to due process and a fair trial. This commitment reaffirmed that justice should not be limited by one’s proficiency in the English language. 

Over the past five decades, the Nebraska Judicial Branch has taken important steps to guarantee that individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have limited English language skills have the same access to justice as English-speaking citizens. These efforts have included:

  1. Interpreters and Translators: The provision of professional interpreters and translators to assist individuals who require language assistance in court proceedings. These skilled professionals ensure that non-English speakers can effectively understand and participate in the legal process.
  2. Education: Nebraska has invested in educating judges, attorneys, and court staff to better understand the unique challenges faced by individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or LEP. This has fostered a more inclusive and understanding legal environment.
  3. Access to Legal Information: Making legal information available in multiple languages has been crucial. Documents are now accessible in languages other than English, helping individuals navigate the legal system more confidently.
  4. Technology: Embracing technology has further expanded language access. Remote interpretation services have become invaluable tools in ensuring language access, especially in rural areas.

The 50th anniversary of language access in the Nebraska Judicial Branch is not only a moment to celebrate our achievements, but also to look forward. Last year, interpreters of 42 different languages were used in Nebraska’s courts. We will continue to invest in language access services and ensure that those services evolve to meet the changing needs of our diverse communities. Here are some important steps for the future:

  1. Effective Communication: Ongoing education and resources for court staff so they are more confident in communicating and engaging with court users in their communities who are deaf, hard of hearing, or limited in their English-speaking skills.
  2. Community Outreach: Building trust within linguistic minority communities is an ongoing effort. Courts have engaged in outreach initiatives to educate court users in these communities about their rights and the services available to them.
  3. Data Collection: Additional data on the use of language access services will help the Court make informed decisions about the allocation and improvement of existing services.

As we celebrate this milestone, let us reaffirm our commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and inclusivity that have guided us for the past 50 years. Language access in the Nebraska Judicial Branch is not just a policy -- it's a testament to our dedication to providing justice for all.