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Right to equal access at center of federal lawsuit

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A courtroom spectator’s persistent requests to two trial courts for an interpreter raises questions of how accessible Indiana courts should be for people who have disabilities as well as how much control the state judiciary has over local judges.

The questions escalated into a lawsuit filed in April 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division, naming two county judges, the Indiana Supreme Court and Chief Justice Brent Dickson among the defendants.

Vargas Vargas

Dueling motions for judgment – one for partial, the other for summary – have been filed and the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in Jan. 7 with a statement of interest.

Plaintiffs Steven Prakel and his mother, Carolyn Prakel, claim the defendants violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying the family equal access to the courts.

They want the state to reimburse them for the money they spent to hire a sign language interpreter and to have a trial to consider compensatory damages for the discrimination. They also want the District Court to declare that the defendants were required to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure Steven Prakel had access to court proceedings.

The central issue in this case, said the Prakels’ attorney Mary Vargas, is access to open public proceedings for all members of the public, regardless of whether the individual is a party to the case, a family member or someone who is interested in the proceeding.

“This is not rocket science,” Vargas said. “The law, certainly according to the Department of Justice, is very clear that courts need to provide equal access.”

Along with asserting they have immunity, the defendants argue the plaintiffs have no standing because they have failed to show they suffered injury from the defendants’ actions.

“The judges are faced with challenges in providing full access to the courts within the limited resources that are appropriated,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement about the case. “My office will represent the decisions of our court officials in the judiciary as we do the actions in the other two branches of state government.”

Requests and denials

In 2010 and 2011, Steven Prakel, who is deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate, wanted to attend his mother’s court hearings that stemmed from a previous plea to driving while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury.

Prior to a number of hearings, Steven Prakel repeatedly contacted Dearborn Superior Court No. 1 and Dearborn Circuit Court, requesting a sign language interpreter be provided for him. The courts denied his requests, maintaining since he was not a party or witness in the case, they were not obligated to provide an interpreter.

Steven Prakel was unable to access the hearings until his mother paid $264 to have a sign language interpreter attend.

In Steven Prakel and Carolyn Prakel v. the State of Indiana, Chief Justice Brent E. Dickson, Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration and Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Schmaltz, Judge James D. Humphrey, and Judge Jonathan N. Cleary, 4:12-CV-045, the plaintiffs claim the defendants intentionally discriminated against Steven Prakel.

The defendants argue, in part, Title II of the ADA requires the defendants to only make “reasonable accommodations” for the Prakels. Just as the ADA does not require public entities to provide disabled individuals with wheelchairs, prescription eyeglasses and assistance with eating and dressing, the courts should not be required to provide sign language interpreters for a spectator.

The Department of Justice scoffed at that argument. It asserted the provision the defendants cite is not applicable. Instead, according to the DOJ, the request for an interpreter is governed by the communication provisions of Title II which states that public entities “shall furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services” to give qualified disabled individuals access.

“Mr. Prakel repeatedly sought, but was denied, his rights under Title II and Section 504,” the DOJ stated. “The Defendants refused to even engage in the process of determining what auxiliary aids and services were necessary for effective communication as required by Title II. Consequently, the record is clear that the Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Prakel’s federally protected rights.”

On June 23, 2010, Dearborn Superior Judge Jonathan Cleary convened a hearing specifically to determine whether the court had to provide an interpreter. During the proceeding, Cleary asked Carolyn Prakel’s defense attorney, Timothy Day, if there was any need for the court to provide an interpreter.

Day replied that it was a gray area and that he could not answer if the court was required to provide an interpreter when Steven Prakel was not a witness or party to the case.

Vargas, attorney at Stein & Vargas LLP in Maryland, said that asking whether an interpreter was needed to conduct the hearing is different from what this case is about. The main issue, she said, is his right to be present during his mother’s hearings.

In November 2010, the National Association of the Deaf wrote a letter to Circuit Judge James Humphrey, requesting the Dearborn Circuit Court reimburse Carolyn Prakel for the cost of the interpreter. When the association received no response, it sent a letter to then-Chief Justice Randall Shepard but again did not get a reply.

Who is responsible?

The defendants in the Prakel matter took issue with the request for a declaration on providing auxiliary aids and services. Arguing the case should be limited to what happened in Dearborn County, the defendants contend the plaintiffs sprung this request only in the motion for partial summary judgment.

Asserting that requiring interpreters for all spectators at all court proceeding throughout the state would involve different proof and considerations, the defendants asked the District Court to not expand the scope of the lawsuit and focus only on the Prakels’ request for reimbursement for the interpreter they had to hire.

The plaintiffs point out they do not have legal standing to ask that all Indiana courts be made to supply sign language interpreters going forward, but rather they want a declaration from the District Court that the trial courts were required to provide an interpreter for Prakel.

However, who in the Indiana judicial system is accountable for assuring compliance with accessibility requirements is a central question in the Prakel case, said New Albany attorney Matthew Lorch, who also is representing the Prakels. He feels like the Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration and the county courts are all pointing to each other when asked who has responsibility.

The attorney general argued the state courts should not be named defendants because Indiana does not have a unified court system. The Supreme Court and State Court Administration do not have any role in the day-to-day operations or governance of the local and county courts.

Humphrey did contact the State Court Administration on the Prakel matter, but the state has not released the content of those conversations, saying the discussions were privileged.

Lorch noted the effort by Shepard to make Indiana courthouses more accessible. This effort, he said, was not enough to help Prakel and his mother.

“Here was someone so passionately trying to understand and follow (the court proceedings) and he got shut out,” Lorch said. “That is not in line with the whole notion of making courts accessible that we’ve been pushing.”•

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