It appeared at first to Dakota County Chief Judge Edward Lynch that the man appearing on a minor traffic offense was especially nervous. Lynch soon understood why.
The man had answered yes to the questions of whether he understood his rights and the charges against him.
"It was when I asked him whether he wanted to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges, and he answered 'yes' again, that I realized the reason for the heightened anxiety: He did not understand me," the judge recalled.
With an increasing number of immigrants to the United States, the need for court translators has soared in recent years, officials say.
"There has been a dramatic increase in the need for interpreters in court proceedings in the past 20 years," Lynch said.
"When I became a judge in 1989, hearings with non-English speaking participants were very rare. Now it is not unusual to have several hearings each week where interpreters are needed in various languages."
In 2006, there were 5,177 proceedings in Minnesota courtrooms that required interpreters. Of those, 554 were in the 1st Judicial District.
Last year, there were 30,009 proceedings using interpreters, a near sixfold increase statewide.
Of those, 4,568 were in the 1st Judicial District, Lynch said.
Surveys have found more than 120 languages spoken in Minnesota, along with sign language.
And about one in 10 residents did not speak English in their homes, statistics show.
Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom points to school enrollment and other figures indicating the numbers of people for whom English is a second language are even higher in pockets of Dakota County.
He said the need for Spanish-speaking interpreters has increased greatly in the past decade. But the past few years have increasingly required interpreters who speak other languages including Somali, Hmong and those less widely known.
The rapidly increasing need, Backstrom said, presents challenges for all parts of the criminal justice system, from police interviews to prosecutors to grand jury proceedings. At times, he said, there are delays to wait for interpreters.
In the case of immigrants, an unwitting admission of guilt could result not only in criminal penalties for an innocent man, but potential deportation down the road, officials say.
The case described by Lynch is among a mounting number cited by judges statewide as needing interpreter services to ensure justice -- in any language.
Taxpayers picked up a $1.9 million tab for interpreters for court hearings in Minnesota last year. The 1st Judicial District, which encompasses seven counties including Dakota, Scott and Goodhue, had costs exceeding $330,000 last year, according to Lynch.
To cut costs, these counties and others have been developing best practices, sharing resources and entering contractual relationships with interpreters to provide reliable services at reasonable costs, he said.
Now, more than 1,300 interpreters speak more than 100 languages. And 750 of these interpreters have passed rigorous examinations and were certified as interpreters in the 13 most common languages spoken in Minnesota.
"The courts in Minnesota have come a long way in responding to the needs and rights of non-English-speaking people in court proceedings," Lynch said.
He's written on the topic as part of an organized public outreach effort by Minnesota judges.
"In 2010, more than 25,800 hearings in Minnesota courts required interpreters speaking more than 88 languages," Lynch wrote recently.
"During this same period, more than 4,500 hearings in the seven counties of the First Judicial District required interpreters speaking 48 languages to assist participants; an average of 18 hearings each day require an interpreter."
For many years, people who had difficulty understanding English well enough for court would enlist friends and family members, or contacts from cultural, religious or ethnic organizations, to interpret.
"Hearings often had to be continued until an interpreter could be located, increasing the delay, expense and inconvenience to everyone involved, not just the non-English-speaking participant," Lynch wrote.
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017