A travesty of justice, and hope to non-English speakers, come to the Illinois judicial system at the same time.

January 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

By now many of you heard of the Luis Pantoja case from my postings on Twitter and Facebook or from the media attention it received from printed press and TV.  This is the case of the individual charged with sexual assault on a Spanish speaker woman in Cook County Illinois (Chicago).  On cross-examination during the preliminary hearing the victim contradicted herself and it became evident to the defense attorney that she did not understand his questions. He asked her if she wanted an interpreter and she answered: “…yes. Please…”  Unfortunately, Cook County Illinois Judge Laura M. Sullivan decided against the request and simply asked the defense attorney to rephrase the question. Because of the contradictions in the testimony, obviously due to the language barrier, on September 17, 2013 this judge dismissed the charges as she found no probable cause; she also set Pantoja free.  It is puzzling that Pantoja, who is hearing-impaired, had the services of a Sign Language interpreter during the hearing.  Pantoja was arrested again on the first week of January 2014 and this time he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year old girl.  This time he has been held in custody on a $2.5 million bail.  This judge has been characterized in the past as “minority hater” by some publications.  At the least, her decision in this case shows a lack of judicial judgment.  Besides the public outcry against this travesty of justice, and the criticism to the judge and judicial system by Second City Cop, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Salon Magazine, and others, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a very strong opinion condemning the decisions taken by the judge, and the flawed state legislation that does not provide for an interpreter in cases when the victim or a witness speak a foreign language.  They are right. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned the other crucial aspect of the problem: There is no court interpreter certification in the state of Illinois.

Dear friends and colleagues, the state of Illinois is home to more foreign speakers than the U.S. average, and the city of Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the world with people from all corners of the planet, and with a huge Polish and Hispanic population.  There are many more foreign language speaker cases in Cook County Illinois, the county where the city of Chicago is located, than most other judicial systems in the United States where they have implemented a court interpreter certification program.  In other words, the program does not exist where it is needed the most.  This lack of quality control has allowed that people with untested knowledge and skill work as language interpreters in this busy judicial system.  If you add to this lack of certification the extremely low pay and shocking working conditions that exist for those who provide interpretation services in Illinois, you can easily conclude that even with legislation that required interpretation services for victims and witnesses, and even with a more considerate judge presiding over this case, the chances of this victim getting accurate and professional interpretation services were very slim.

Although I live in Chicago, I do not know the state of Illinois court interpreters because in Chicago, just like in other big cities, state-level court interpreters and federally certified court interpreters do not work in the same places.  Chicago is a very international city with a great need for good capable interpreters who work its many conferences, countless professional and corporate training sessions, and the federal courts where only interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts can work. I still remember when I first moved to Chicago and tried to meet the Cook County Illinois court interpreters.  All I wanted to do was to let them know that I was their new neighbor. I took the telephone and called the main interpreter office.  A person answered the phone and before I could even tell him who I was, he told me that: “…well, you are an interpreter…we are not hiring anybody. We have all the people we need. Goodbye…” and he hung up on me.  I could not even tell him my name.  Frankly, after such a rude greeting I lost all desire to contact that office ever again.  Since these interpreters get paid between $15.00 and $25.00 per hour there was not even an economic incentive to try again.    Now the “hope” part of the posting.

Despite all the problems and irregularities above, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is currently developing a plan to provide access to the courts to those who do not speak English as their first language.  After all these years the U.S. Justice Department decided to enforce the requirement that all individuals have access to the administration of justice.  Basically, unless the states comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provide language access to all people, the federal government will stop all monies it presently gives to the states.  All states that were not in full compliance, and all others who did not even have a court interpreter certification program like in the case of Illinois, had to start planning and implementing these changes.  Last week I attended a Language Access to the Courts meeting sponsored by the Illinois Judicial Branch in Chicago.

The meeting was well organized and the attendance was very good.  The State government officials in charge of developing the plan seemed capable and enthusiastic.  Of course, there were different motivations among those in attendance:  There were those state administrators who want to keep the federal funds and see this as another hoop to jump through; the interpretation agencies were there to watch over their interests and make sure they are not left out of the game.  Some educational organizations were present in hopes of being awarded an interpreter certification training contract; some others were there for no other reason than a real commitment to equal justice; and of course some interpreters were there: non-certified interpreters who went to see what is coming to them, and certified court interpreters (I include myself in this group) to make sure that our profession is not diminished by the desire to get this implemented somehow in order to keep the federal funds coming.

There were valid and important points made during the meeting. This was good. Unfortunately, there were also remarks that frankly worried me.  It is clear, and fortunately the people from the State in charge of this program know it, that these changes from now until the day when we only see certified court interpreters in the Illinois courts is far away.  It was of concern to learn how court administrators do not know where in the world some important languages are spoken, or how they refer to certain languages as “dialects,” and it is really incredible to hear a judge say that as a bilingual person, he has no problem doing the entire hearing in the foreign language instead of waiting for an interpreter to get to the courtroom; but it also lets us comprehend the magnitude of the task ahead.  I selected the term “hope” for this posting because I really hope that this change happens. I want to trust those involved in the planning and implementation of this Language Access Plan.

It is important to remember that as professional certified interpreters we have to remain vigilant so that the certification requirements are not watered down, and more importantly, that the exceptions to the certification process do not happen. At least we have to make sure that they do not happen in those languages, like Spanish, where there are plenty of capable certified interpreters who hold a federal certification or a credential from another state.  It is essential that we make sure that to continue working, those already employed by the state courts as interpreters take the certification exam and pass it.  It is necessary that we educate the public and private bar so these attorneys know the difference between a certified court interpreter and an old-timer who cannot pass the test.  We have to make sure that the interpreter fee issue is discussed as part of this program.  In a state like Illinois, particularly in a metropolitan area like Chicago’s, the courts will never get the top-tier interpreters unless they pay them accordingly.  There are just too many other places where interpreters get a professional fee that takes into account the big city lifestyle with all of its expenses. As I said, I have hope; let’s make sure that it becomes reality so that we never again have to deal with a travesty of justice like the one perpetrated in Cook County Court last September.  I invite you to share your ideas and comments on both issues: The Cook County Court horror story, or the possibility of having a real court interpreter certification program in Illinois.

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§ 4 Responses to A travesty of justice, and hope to non-English speakers, come to the Illinois judicial system at the same time.

  • Catalina J. Bajpai says:

    Have them contact the Judicial Council of California. They are in charge of testing the people who want to word as Certified Court Interpreters in the California State Courts. Debbie Chong-Manguiat, 415-865-7596, email: debbie.chong-manguiat@jud.ca.gov Their address is: 455 Golden Gate Ave, San Francisco, Ca 94102-3688, Ph: 415-865-4205. All certified interpreters need to comply every two years with Continuing Education classes, 30 units. The standards of our profession here in California are high. Their State test is excellent, albeit difficult to pass. Without this certification, you are not allowed to work in Civil or Criminal law cases for any matter. Check out the website: http://www.courts.ca.gov

  • […] Dear colleagues: By now many of you heard of the Luis Pantoja case from my postings on Twitter and Facebook or from the media attention it received from printed press and TV. This is the case of t…  […]

  • Melinda G-H says:

    Tony, thank you for this timely and excellent post. If certified interpreters in Illinois are given a voice in this process, I hope they can reaffirm the points you have made. Given all states have access to the NCSC Council of Language Access Coordinators, if there is a will to do things right, Illinois can certainly create a language access program that assures the highest quality of interpretation available.

  • Sonja says:

    Thank you for this great post, it sums up the problem perfectly. No one on the East Coast believes it when I tell them about the situation in IL. Unfortunately a teenager had to pay the price for it. I hope things come together soon in IL- it can’t happen soon enough!

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