This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

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§ 6 Responses to This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

  • Rafaela Graffos says:

    Great post, Tony. When I started as Coordinator of the Minnesota Supreme Court Court Interpreter Program (1995), four states, Minnesota, New Jersey (Robert Joe Lee), Washington (Joanna Moore and Oregon were putting the final touches on what was to be the State-wide Consortium. It embodied so many hopes and expectations for a nationwide best practices standard that would ensure equal access to the administration of justice. I don’t work for State Courts either, but your words are a poignant reminder of the need for vigilance in our profession.

  • Kathleen M.Morris says:

    Thank you, Tony, for alerting interpreters to these encroaching threats to professional standards and equal language access. Prime examples of this phenomenon are: The common practice of Federal courts that preferentially hire interpreters without Federal certification, and U.S. District courts such as the one located in Atlanta, Georgia. In the latter district, Federal contractors hired for a full day assignment, do not get paid the standard full day fee. Instead, they are paid on an hourly pro-rated basis, for any work performed after 4 hours. This is a long-standing practice there, instituted by Federal judges who unilaterally altered the set interpreter “half day/full day” contract specified fees, to their own convenience. A word to the wise, if contacted to work in Atlanta Federal court.

    • A few months ago, I contacted the staff interpreter in Atlanta, since I’m only less than 5 hours away, but he told me that he would not be calling me because he doesn’t hardly have any work, let alone have work to assign to the seven or so other interpreters FCCIs near Atlanta. I’m sorry to hear that they use the interpreter contract from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (which mandates a full-day rate after 4 hours) as toilet paper. Well… as the country continues to go down the toilet, so does every aspect of society.

  • Armida Hernandez says:

    Thanks Tony for your very insightful article. You have expressed what many of us veteran interpreters have been witnessing in recent years – the ongoing erosion of our profession at the hands of those who ironically tout themselves as leaders in the field of language access and justice for all. Interpreters faced with this changing landscape are faced with some tough decisions. The exodus of some of the best and most experienced from the State courts is a distinct possibility. That is not a decision taken lightly as I believe that the majority of our colleagues demonstrate great dedication to the profession and especially the communties we serve. Finally, I must note that the methods used by some State court authorities to pressure interpreters to sign these burdensome contracts can be likened to a bad episode of “Scare Tactics”. Your advice is prudent and welltaken. Communication among colleagues during these difficult times is of paramount importance. Let us support one another. Disunity hurts us all.

    • oxana says:

      If, as they are for judges, your terms of employment are enshrined in the US Constitution which provides for your holding your office for life, where your compensation may be increased but never decreased then you hardly need an organization that collectively represents your interests and those of your colleagues in this regard.

      Having no such safeguard and no organization to turn to to consolidate a unified push-back, the predicament interpreters find themselves in is to be expected.

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