November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment
I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.
I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.
That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:
The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.
With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.
We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life. A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.
Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.
But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.
The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.
Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?
The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive. I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.
The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.
Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.
July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments
I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:
An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.
Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.
The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.
Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.
On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”
We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”
Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.
I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.