Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

March 26, 2018 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A recurring theme among my court interpreter colleagues in the United States is the extreme difficulties they must endure when working under the Criminal Justice Act program (CJA). There are complaints about absurd paperwork procedures and unimaginable payment delays. Some colleagues’ invoices for professional services rendered under this program have been outstanding for over a year!

I worked with attorneys under the CJA program, but when the system changed about 18 months ago, and interpreters’ invoices had to go through the defense attorneys to get paid, and I heard some of the delayed payment stories from colleagues nationwide, I decided not to take CJA cases anymore.

For those of you who do not do federal court interpreting work in the United States, in 1964 the United States Congress enacted the Criminal Justice Act (18 U.S.C. § 3006A) to provide a system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel; and providing for payment of experts, investigators, or other needed defense services in federal criminal proceedings, including interpreters. Today, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, with the over 10,000 private “panel attorneys” who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.

CJA panel attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $132 in non-capital cases, and, in capital cases, a maximum hourly rate of $185. These rates include both attorney compensation and office overhead. In addition, there are case maximums that limit total panel attorney compensation for categories of representation (for example, $10,000 for felonies, $2,900 for misdemeanors, and $7,200 for appeals). These maximums may be exceeded when higher amounts are certified by the district judge, or circuit judge if the representation is at the court of appeals, as necessary to provide fair compensation and the chief judge of the circuit approves.  CJA attorney appointments are made by the Court on a rotating basis among members of the panel. Freelance federal court interpreters are paid with the same system, but with an additional step: Before their invoice goes to the judiciary, it must be reviewed and approved by the CJA panel attorney who requested the interpreter’s services. I guess interpreters are officers of the court of a lower tier, so they must be policed by the CJA panel attorney, apparently an officer of the court of a tier higher than the interpreter.

This process, not required when interpreters work directly for the federal courts interpreting court hearings or out-of-court interviews for public defenders or probation officers, created a burden on freelance interpreters who now devote a considerable, uncompensated time to the paperwork and its unavoidable eternal follow up process, that often takes many months and even years. Interpreters are billing for the time they worked as interpreters in a case, but that time represents but a fraction of the hours interpreters spend on paperwork, and follow up telephone calls, emails, and in-person visits to the courthouse, trying to discover the status of a payment for a service provided long before. This time goes uncompensated, and interpreters cannot work somewhere else, and generate income, while they are tied up in bureaucratic nonsense and begging for payment of rightfully earned professional fees.  For all these reasons, and to keep my health, sanity, and dignity, as soon as the system started I decided not to take any CJA panel cases, and I have taken none.

I suggest you do the same. Once you do it, you will be surprised at the money you will save just by rejecting these cases. Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for years, know that I am always suggesting diversification in the profession among freelancers so you can keep steady income, and a stream of interesting assignments instead of a boring monotonous routine. Dear colleagues, there are plenty of options even if court and legal interpreting is your thing and you do not want to step outside your field.

The most desirable practice would be civil cases with well-established high-profile law firms. They generally handle interesting cases, have clients who understand and appreciate your work as interpreter, and pay excellent, professional fees when you negotiate correctly. Smaller civil law firms and solo practitioners are also a good alternative.

Next, you have the criminal defense private attorneys. They have time to handle their cases and they usually retain you for the entire case. Here your interpreting services are well paid, and you are exposed to challenging, but interesting cases. It is rare to work in a case involving white collar crimes when you spend your time providing services to public defenders and CJA panel attorneys.

Foreign law firms are also a very good choice. Globalization has generated a big multinational litigation practice, and those top-notch attorneys coming from countries where they do not speak English may need the services of a local court interpreter team. Fascinating topics, including intellectual property, foreign trade, mining, hazardous materials, are common with these clients. Family Law practitioners from these countries are also looking for interpreting services in cases of divorce, child support, international child abduction, and others.

If you want to fill in the rest of your agenda with more court/legal work, you can also provide interpreting services to the Office of the United States Attorney in your jurisdiction. Witness preparation, proffers, transcriptions, and other services are required by the AUSA. An added benefit: They are not bound by the (every-day lower) federal fees, so you can negotiate a much better compensation for your professional services.

If you like working with the federal prosecutors, then you must offer your services to the United States Trustee Program (USTP) for their exams and interviews in federal bankruptcy court cases. This is another source of legal/court interpreter income that pays well when you negotiate your fee correctly.

Finally, you can still work with the federal public defender and, if you want to interpret hearings instead of interviews, negotiations, and depositions, you can interpret for the federal courts. You will only make the set half –a-day or full-day fee, and you will usually get the same type of cases, but you will stay away from the long, demeaning, and never-ending invoice procedures associated with CJA panel attorney cases. As a less desirable option, but in many ways better than dealing with the CJA system, you could always work at the state-court level.

Dear friends and colleagues, there are plenty of alternatives to CJA assignments, even within the court/legal field. I believe that if you all were to do what I did from the beginning, the CJA system would have no choice but to change and become more interpreter-friendly. I do not believe on “fantasyland solutions” such as talking to chief judges and court clerks; it was tried in some districts and they accomplished nothing. We cannot continue to lose income, health, and dignity backing up a system that proved ineffective. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us.

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§ 19 Responses to Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

  • Loie says:

    The only time I’ve ever been stiffed was by a CJA attorney in NYC who for months did not acknowledge my numerous emails. She finally responded claiming her secretary had arranged for, negotiated the price of, and yes, even accepted and praised the quality of the translation, but all without her consent. It was a small job and by then I had moved to the West Coast….Still sorry I did not continue to pursue my rights….

    • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      Loie, I only know one person with that nickname… I would pursue the pay issue with the Office of the Clerk. That has worked for me in the past, and I have heard from another colleagues that there is someone here who has also helpful with, shall we say, a recalcitrant attorney. Whether Clerk staff help or not, at least make sure they know about the situation.

  • Tamara Wasserman says:

    I agree. Still waiting to be paid for the work I did in July 2017. Quite absurd.

    • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      Tamara, please see my response to Loie, and also, what I have written below. Best of luck with everything.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    My suggestion is simple. When a CJA attorney asks an interpreter to do something, such as a prison visit or a translation, simply respond more-or-less as follows: “I’ll be glad to do that as soon as you have gone on-line and done your part to make sure I’ll be paid. Please let me know when you have done this. I will then take a look and confirm that we’re set to go. Thanks!”

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    My other suggestion is this. Make sure you know the CJA attorney’s allocated budget for interpreter and translator services. Find out how much has been spent. Monitor this budget. When the CJA attorney’s budget is starting to run out, remind the attorney to file a motion for fees. Ask the attorney to provide you with a copy of the motion for fees, and a copy of the court’s response providing additional funds.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    My understanding is that only Spanish interpreters are bound by the AOUSC rates of pay for in-court interpreter services. Interpreters in other languages can negotiate for their fees. So, if you are not a Spanish interpreter, find out the name of the contact person in the specific federal district of interest to you, and arrange to negotiate with them. Get the agreement in writing. There is a space on the standard contract for the fees. My understanding is also that there may be a cap. That cap is a quantity that is equivalent to twice the highest amount paid to federally certified court interpreters. I heard all of this years ago, but have never been able to confirm it.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    Go here (http://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters) and scroll down until you reach the
    “Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 5: Court interpreting.” If you go through it carefully, you will see that there are two numbered sections where the text is missing. These may be the sections where the policy on being able to negotiate higher rates can be found.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    Go here for the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) Guidelines:
    http://www.uscourts.gov/rules-policies/judiciary-policies/criminal-justice-act-cja-guidelines.
    It has been a while since I’ve gone over these carefully. My suggestion is to look for the sections applicable to contracting interpreters. I believe that rates can be negotiated with CJA attorneys for out-of-court services. See Chapter 3, Appendix 3A. However, the CJA attorney may need to obtain advance approval from the judge. Whatver you do, get everything in writing, and make sure the judge has agreed.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    I would also like to say something about state court. In Hawaii, as a state certified court interpreter, I can actually make more than I can working as a Language-skilled interpreter in federal court. Sometimes I make more in half a day in state court that I would earn working a full day in federal court. So, I suggest that everyone familiarize themselves with the rates in your particular state. That includes all the details: payment for mileage, payment for travel (interisland) or commuter time (on island after a certain number of miles, round-trip), etc. Hawaii state court does not reimburse for parking, but as long as one parks at a certain kind of meter, the Judiciary will void out your parking ticket if you submit a copy of your form that shows you were working at the time of the ticket, and for an hour afterwards. In short: parking is free.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    In terms of invoicing, Hawaii state court has a relatively simple invoicing system. So, check the specifics of the state (or county) courts in your area before making a decision about where to work.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    One more benefit to working in state (or county) courts: There is a far greater variety of cases than in federal court. There may be more judges, attorneys, and court staff, and therefore, a far greater variety of temperments, etc. In short, it can be a lot more challenging–and also, more interesting.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    While I’m on the subject of the possible advantages of working in state court, here is another one: the chances that an interpreter organization can affect policy and practice are much greater than within the federal system. That includes lobbying for better conditions of work and pay. So, join your local professional association and/or union. Work through them to get better treatment. Best of luck with everything…and please keep your colleagues informed.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    Thank you, Tony Rosado, for this blog post. I have been hearing about this CJA pay situation for some time. Hopefully, over the long term, there will be some remedies. In the short term, perhaps interpreters can talk to the local Office of the Federal Public Defender. They, in turn, can talk to their CJA colleagues and ask for better behavior from them. As I understand the situation, the federal defender offices have a say in who gets on the CJA list. So, let them know about problematic attorneys. That might help.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    There may also be a sub-section within the the state or county bar in your area which is specifically for federal defense attorneys. Letting them know about problems in general, and asking them to talk and write to their members asking for better behavior, may help.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    I”m not sure it’s true for all federal district courts, but I know for some of the ones i’ve looked at, you can find an on-line list of CJA panel attorneys. That means that your professional association or union can send letters to these people about your concerns. The organization could also request a meeting. Etc.
    Personally, I think it is important to keep CJA employment of court interpreters viable. That may mean more and better communication. I understand if some people just want to walk away. It’s an individual, professional decision. I just feel sorry for the defendants if a lot of really good interpreters stop working with CJA attorneys.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    Some federal district courts also post an on-line roster of court interpreters. That makes it feasible to locate your colleagues and see if there are shared concerns in your area.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    For interpreters who are new to federal court, the Central District of California has some very helpful materials. https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/interpreters

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