Something bad is happening with the federal courts in some states.

July 17, 2012 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Not long ago I had dinner with some colleagues that work in the federal court system.  As it always happens with interpreters, we ended up talking shop.  Of course, as you all know, this is pretty standard in our profession; however, I was shocked by some of the comments I heard. I learned that despite the fact that the state has over 20 court certified interpreters, the federal courts in Colorado are now hiring non-certified interpreters for all services with the exception of court hearings; and that is not all, I also heard that the CJA attorneys are only approving vouchers for the time “actually worked” by the interpreter. Forget about the full day and half a day rates.  I also found out that, ignoring the fact that Chicago has around 15 certified court interpreters, the state of Indiana is hiring non-certified interpreters for hearings, and they are even pairing them with certified interpreters.  We all know that each district is its own world, and they set their own policy, but somebody told me that this is happening with the blessing of higher authorities.  This is worrisome.  I support the idea that if you want to like our profession for a long time, and if you want to make a good living, you need to diversify and interpret conferences, legal, medical, and everything else you can think of.

I oppose the position of some independent contractor colleagues who only see themselves as court interpreters and refuse to step outside the box; however, I am very fortunate to live in a place where the court only allows certified court interpreters,  but if what I heard is true, I am saddened and frustrated by this information because the certification exam is not easy, because there is a huge quality gap between the interpretation level of certified and non-certified court interpreters, and because the attorneys and judges are going along with the budget guys, giving up the quality of a certified court interpreter in order to save a few bucks.  I ask you to tell me if this is what is happening in your area, and if so, what in your opinion can be done to educate the defense bar, the federal bench, and the U.S. Department of Justice so they stop calling all these non-certified interpreters, and let me be very clear that when I say non-certified I am including the consortium certified interpreters because there is no distinction between them and those with another certification or without any certification, they are not certified to work in the federal system.  It is that simple.

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§ 6 Responses to Something bad is happening with the federal courts in some states.

  • Donna Bos says:

    I heard that this was happening in our district a year ago, with the CJA and Federal Public Defenders office. They are using interpreters for jail visits and for everything but the court hearings. They are using interpreters who are not certified by any organization, just because they are cheaper, interpreters who have not even attempted to take the certification test. There are several interpreters in the area who are certified by the consortium and 2 who are federally certified. The consortium certification in this state is hard, and the federal certification test is even harder. Why should people like myself spend extensive time and a lot of money preparing for and taking court certification exams if the courts are going to give the jobs to people who have not even put forth the effort to TAKE the exams?

    As for what can be done about it? From what I heard, the decision to use the cheaper interpreters for all but court hearings was a decision passed down the the local offices by those higher up in command. Complaining to the local offices or local court seems ineffective. There must be a way to go higher up the chain and talk to those who are making the decisions that affect all of us.

  • Jose Perez says:

    North Carolina monitors this closely.

  • Janis Palma says:

    This is truly a very sad state of affairs. We are very fortunate in Puerto Rico to have a high standard… even for non-certified interpreters. Not too long ago a judge had an interpreter — who was not federally certified — removed from her court because she was simply incompetent. It was a civil matter and certification was not required, but the standard is already there, so the attorneys were scrambling to find a certified interpreter. Not an easy task since there are very few ACTIVE federally-certified interpreters here in Puerto Rico and the demand is very high.

    I am sorry I do not have any suggestions for you about the budget-driven decisions to contract non-certified interpreters. If defense attorneys are not aware of the myriad ways in which this can affect their clients, they won’t protest. Could that be a starting point? Educate the defense attorneys?

  • Anne Louise says:

    I sympathize with your situation and agree that it’s important to diversify, but as a medical interpreter I am appalled at the suggestion that court-certifed interpreters supplement their incomes by doing medical interpreting.

    Good medical interpreting requires years of study and a lot of money to acquire much more than a layman’s knowledge of the field – just like certified court interpreting.

    Medical interpreters have been fighting for years for certification to protect the profession and are making slow but steady progress. I would not want a court interpreter in a medical appointment any more than you would want a medical interpreter in a hearing.

    • Vanesa says:

      I didn’t take Tony’s statement about diversification as a suggestion to work in other fields without the proper certification. I have done both medical and court interpretation, attended training and took tests to do both, and I would do the same if I decided to start working as a conference interpreter.

  • Veronica says:

    Dearest Colleagues,

    I’ll begin by stating that I believe certified interpreters really should be the ones that work and are hired by the courts, otherwise why have the certification and as Donna Bos states, why should good, hard working interpreters even go through the trouble of taking difficult and long certification exams, if it doesn’t guarantee they will be the ones hired.

    I am not a court interpreter, which I understand is very different from my conference interpreting specialty. I have worked in the courts in Washington DC and occasionally throughout the Bay area, when no certified interpreters were available. I have always stated my non certified status before accepting a job and accepted their rate usually lower than what I charge privately for attorney meetings or depositions (which should also preferably be done by certified interpreters).

    I am first and foremost someone that believes herself reasonable and fair (we can debate the yeas and nays of why also if you wish). I live in the current economy, which has affected everyone worldwide, rich and poor in differing and sometimes disproportionate degrees (another topic) and that is why I realize and understand that everyone is looking after their budget. The state in which I live, California, has had a plethora of cities going bankrupt for many years now. The truth is that it is too late to waste time assessing blame and we must hope or work to elect representatives to correct what leads to this, but we the citizens in the meantime must solve our immediate problems as individuals, groups, organizations or government agencies or companies, it is how we survive.

    Here, is where I will part ways in my agreement with most if not all of you, I’m sure:

    This means that just because we are getting less work or at less pay doesn’t mean we must fight it, but rather work with it intelligently because the reasons for less pay are the same that affect all of us: the bad economy, no matter what the reasons. I have had disagreements over pay and how to charge for interpreting services in the conference interpreting sector (mine) and I guess now with the court interpreters. I believe that we should get payed, that means everyone in the world, according to the amount and quality of the work performed. This doesn’t suit most people because it requires extra effort, especially in the world some of us live in where rate fixing is illegal. Yes it is hard, because it requires extra advertising, marketing efforts and skills, which as I get older seem to have gone wherever my memory went.

    So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that courts trying to do what they can with their diminished budgets, as we all are, begin to pay for time worked and not full days. I have a half day rate for conference interpreting and if someone asks me for hourly rates, I’ll work on one, with a minimum that puts me over the line of diminishing returns. Some of my fellow members at AIIC seem to think this is anathema and “illegal” in itself. I disagree.

    We are forever harping about how we are not considered professionals as others are. Well, let’s make it equal, do you want to pay anyone that does a service for you for the full day because maybe they cannot fill the rest of their work day? I agree that if you have a contract and the cancellation comes too late then they should pay. I offer a scale for payments in case of cancellation: the day before, a week before, a month…you know what I mean. Yes, I recognize it is harder to fill an interpreter’s day in segments so we should have higher hourly rates which would lead to a higher daily rate, but perhaps less than the sum of a days work hours. This way there is an incentive to hire you for the day if the possibility exists for it to go that long. A higher minimum, so that it isn’t so attractive to just say OK this is just an hour and a half and you get paid that, but this is a long way from automatically establishing full day’s pay for an hour’s worth of work!

    Short real story to illustrate my point. I was hired by a California court (which should have found a certified interpreter, but did or could not) to go spend the day on call (bad planning idea on their part). The day was split of working hours in the morn (9am to noon) and afternoon (1pm to 5pm). I was called for my first interpreting at 20 minutes to 12pm and by the time i got to the court, was sworn in and we began it was a quarter of 12. The judge realizing it was close to quitting for lunch asked if everyone would mind staying a bit past noon to finish what was a very easy and probably fast traffic case. We all agreed to stay (I had no idea that the court paid overtime for going into the lunch hour). I went back to the central dispatching office after I finished (at 12:10pm) they said to go on and take lunch until 1:10 pm. The day concluded at 5:00pm without any other request for my services. I went to fill out my forms and apply signatures to the incredible array of forms required for one day’s work and was told I would get an hours overtime, because I went into the lunch break, remember I took lunch until 1:10pm so I had made that up and I worked a total of a half hour in all that day and left promptly at 5pm. I refused the overtime, I already felt bad about not working all day and the misuse of my time (I could have been doing all sorts of tasks I don’t have time for because, “Im at work”) but , it was their bad planning and they did use up my time. They didn’t like it: “it is the rule”. My reply: “The rule is highway robbery and I cannot accept that in good conscience, nor is it ethical”. I billed just for the day which was already bad enough, as I saw my tax dollars being squandered on me.

    What is wrong with this is that we assume we are the only one’s with a problem, sc!#*&w the court system or whomever is paying us. We all pay for it in the end with unethical practices and rules. Look at Greece, it has turned into: “I do do it because everyone does, but I’m not the one to pay the piper so it stops and gets corrected”. I believe we are all in it together and we should be compassionate and ethical, but not just when it comes to ourselves!

    OK, now I brace myself waiting for you to pummel me. I do not like controversy or acrimony, but I also do not believe in going along with the crowd if I disagree, so I’m forced to invite it sometimes.

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