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Judges extend due process safeguards regarding interpreters to civil cases

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A trial court must take the same steps in a civil action as it does in a criminal action regarding the use of an interpreter in order to address due process concerns, the Indiana Court of Appeals held for the first time Tuesday.

The appellate court had to determine whether mother Saba Tesfamariam’s due process rights were violated during a hearing dissolving her marriage to Moghes Woldehaimanot. Both parties are from Africa and their native language is Tigrinya. Tesfamariam can’t speak English fluently, but she was taking English classes. Woldehaimanot is able to speak English fluently enough to communicate without an interpreter.

Tesfamariam requested an interpreter for the final hearing regarding Woldehaimanot’s petition for dissolution of marriage, but later told the trial court she was willing to proceed without one. But the trial court provided her one because it was “easy to do.” The trial court used Language Line, the telephone interpretation service funded by the Indiana Supreme Court.

The court awarded Woldehaimanot sole legal and physical custody of the children with Tesfamariam receiving parenting time.

Tesfamariam argued on appeal that she was denied due process because the trial court failed to administer an oath to her interpreter or ensure that the interpreter was properly qualified as an expert. Relying on Mariscal v. State, 687 N.E.2d 378, 382 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), which addressed these issues for criminal court, the appellate court found the trial court abused its discretion by not establishing that the interpreter was qualified and by failing to administer an oath to provide an accurate translation.

The due process implications in this case are substantial, and it’s appropriate to require the same procedural safeguards as in criminal cases, wrote Judge Patricia Riley in Saba Tesfamariam v. Moghes Woldehaimanot, No. 49A02-1009-DR-1050.

Tesfamariam never objected to the interpreter errors at trial and later claimed that those errors were fundamental and not subject to waiver. The judges relied on caselaw to hold that a failure to establish the qualifications of an interpreter or to administer an oath is not a fundamental error.

There were times that the interpreter could not hear the trial, but the judges noted this was the result of technical issues and the interpreter always asked for clarification.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to award full custody of the two children to Woldehaimanot.

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  • Learned Helplessness?
    The opinion states that Saba is a United States citizen. How can she be naturalized with so few English language skills that she needs an interpreter?

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  1. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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