I had to travel to Mexico City this past week on a family emergency. The plane was one of those newer models that have individual screens on each seat back. I browsed the viewing options and settled on A Time to Kill – one of my favorites. I confess I am a sucker for John Grisham novels. But this particular movie has what I consider to be one of the best closing arguments I’ve heard. Remember Jack Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) describing a heinous crime while the entire jury has their eyes closed and at the end adding: “Now imagine she’s white.”
It is poignant because it makes people transfer their own experience to the situation. It also highlights what seems to be a really difficult thing for people to do: put themselves in other people’s shoes. Not just to try to understand what it feels to be them, but to really put themselves in their shoes. Take this story for example:
My friend was invited to a wedding at a local church. The church was decorated with pretty white flowers. There were people dressed in elegant attire. There was an organ and suddenly it began to play Mendelssohn’s wedding march. My friend knew the ceremony was about to start. The doors opened and a man dressed in a black tuxedo with a white flower on his lapel entered the room preceded by little kids dropping petals as they walked. Then the doors closed and when they reopened, a woman came down the aisle in a bridal dress. They both came to the front of the altar and the priest greeted them. And then, the priest began to speak.
It is at that point that my friend felt lost. The service was in Korean. My friend does not speak Korean. Naturally he couldn’t understand what was being said. He knew that it was a wedding. He could identify the bride, the groom, and the priest. He could also, perhaps, make out who was invited by the bride’s side and who by the groom’s. Other than that, he was lost.
So now let’s do a “John Grisham.” Imagine a situation in a courtroom. Now imagine you are the defendant. And now imagine you don’t speak English. Feel the angst?
Every day in Wisconsin, many litigants and defendants find themselves in a courtroom without fully understanding what is going on.
Every day in Wisconsin, many litigants and defendants find themselves in a court room without fully understanding what is going on. And this has nothing to do with intellectual impairments.
The state of Wisconsin has done an amazing job ensuring that non-English-speaking defendants have an interpreter to assist them in the proceedings. This is in compliance not only with the American with Disabilities Act but also with federal regulations and constitutional provisions ensuring equal protection, equal access to justice, and nondiscrimination. As lawyers, we are tasked with protecting our clients’ interests at all times. Making sure that the client understands everything that happens in a courtroom should be our number one priority.
So next time you disregard your client’s inability to speak or fully understand the English language, or next time you agree to represent a non-English speaker, put yourself in their shoes – remember Jack Brigance’s words: “Until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded.”
Meet Our Contributors
How do you overcome challenges and obstacles?
There is a Mariachi song in Mexico that loosely translates as: “I tripped again, with the same stone.” I try very hard not to be the one singing that. When I make a mistake, I analyze what I did, try to come up with what I could’ve done differently, and always remember what the mistake was. I am relentless in what I want and often believe there is a solution to every problem. So I analyze, hyper analyze, breathe, and carry on.
Cynthia Herber, CRH Legal LLC, Milwaukee.
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