Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

March 26, 2018 § 25 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.

Interpreting near the border: Not necessarily a pleasant experience.

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As a veteran interpreter I have seen many things, faced numerous obstacles, and solved hundreds of situations such as bad equipment, poor booth location and lack of research materials, noisy courtrooms, difficult accents, and rotten clients.  I am sure you had your fair share as well.  However, I came to a realization a few weeks ago when I was teaching a seminar in the great State of Texas.  I lived in a border state for many years and I had to face the bilingualism problem on a daily basis, but nothing I ever went through compares to the story I am about to tell you:

There is a judge in Houston Criminal Court who has very little regard for her interpreters, this combined with her colossal ignorance of the interpreter profession, of who the officers of the court are , and her self-centered goal of only caring for the next election (because state judges are elected by the voters in Texas) have resulted in a very uncomfortable work environment for our good colleagues.

I lived in New Mexico for many years and I experienced first-hand the constant struggle of interpreting from and into Spanish in a place where most people have an idea of the language and many of them speak it at an average level.  It is very difficult to work under these circumstances, especially as a court interpreter because in an environment where the judge, attorneys, clerks, police officers, witnesses, and jurors understand, or think they understand, at least some of what was said in Spanish, puts the interpreter in a place where he or she is constantly on the spot, been “corrected”, receiving unwanted “suggestions”, and sometimes being challenged by one of this so-called Spanish speakers.

There was a case in another state some years ago where a member of the jury, who supposedly spoke Spanish, disapproved of the official interpretation of a witness during a trial and during deliberations informed the other jurors that she spoke Spanish, that she understood what the witness said in Spanish, and that the interpretation had been incorrect. She then told them what in her opinion the witness really said, and that swayed the jury.  Because of that comment by the bilingual juror there was a conviction that otherwise would have never existed.  Once the circumstances during deliberation were known by the judge and attorneys, the defense filed an appeal that made it all the way up to the State Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned.  The reality was that the interpreter had been right all along. The juror did not have the necessary knowledge of the Spanish language to really comprehend what was said and then interpret it into English accordingly (like the interpreter did)  In their decision, the Justices clearly indicated that the court, including the jury, has to abide by the official interpretation into English provided by the certified professional court interpreter. That is the record in the case, it is not there to be doubted or debated by other bilingual speakers.  As a result of that case judges in that state now read an instruction to the members of the jury clearly telling them to rely on the interpretation and not in what they may believe was said as they are not professionally trained to interpret.

The absolute opposite of what this court decision stated happens every day in this Houston Texas Criminal courtroom.  Whenever there is a trial before this judge that requires Spanish interpretation, from the beginning of the proceedings the judge asks the Spanish-speaking jurors to “…let (her) know if something that the interpreter said was wrong… Because (in that case) we’ll try to figure it out, and if we can’t come to an agreement (of what was said) then we’ll get an expert…”

This is what she says with the licensed interpreter (in Texas there are no certified interpreters, they are licensed) present and interpreting to the defendant!  Of course, most freelancers now refuse to work for this ignorant “judge”, but the staff interpreters are stuck with her, at least until the next election.  Once I heard the story I concluded that no matter how bad we think we have it when doing our job, there is always somebody who has it worse.  I would like to see what you think about this situation, and I would love to hear any suggestions you may have for the Houston interpreters who deal with this individual on a daily basis.

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