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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. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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