A travesty of justice, and hope to non-English speakers, come to the Illinois judicial system at the same time.

January 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

By now many of you heard of the Luis Pantoja case from my postings on Twitter and Facebook or from the media attention it received from printed press and TV.  This is the case of the individual charged with sexual assault on a Spanish speaker woman in Cook County Illinois (Chicago).  On cross-examination during the preliminary hearing the victim contradicted herself and it became evident to the defense attorney that she did not understand his questions. He asked her if she wanted an interpreter and she answered: “…yes. Please…”  Unfortunately, Cook County Illinois Judge Laura M. Sullivan decided against the request and simply asked the defense attorney to rephrase the question. Because of the contradictions in the testimony, obviously due to the language barrier, on September 17, 2013 this judge dismissed the charges as she found no probable cause; she also set Pantoja free.  It is puzzling that Pantoja, who is hearing-impaired, had the services of a Sign Language interpreter during the hearing.  Pantoja was arrested again on the first week of January 2014 and this time he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year old girl.  This time he has been held in custody on a $2.5 million bail.  This judge has been characterized in the past as “minority hater” by some publications.  At the least, her decision in this case shows a lack of judicial judgment.  Besides the public outcry against this travesty of justice, and the criticism to the judge and judicial system by Second City Cop, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Salon Magazine, and others, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a very strong opinion condemning the decisions taken by the judge, and the flawed state legislation that does not provide for an interpreter in cases when the victim or a witness speak a foreign language.  They are right. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned the other crucial aspect of the problem: There is no court interpreter certification in the state of Illinois.

Dear friends and colleagues, the state of Illinois is home to more foreign speakers than the U.S. average, and the city of Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the world with people from all corners of the planet, and with a huge Polish and Hispanic population.  There are many more foreign language speaker cases in Cook County Illinois, the county where the city of Chicago is located, than most other judicial systems in the United States where they have implemented a court interpreter certification program.  In other words, the program does not exist where it is needed the most.  This lack of quality control has allowed that people with untested knowledge and skill work as language interpreters in this busy judicial system.  If you add to this lack of certification the extremely low pay and shocking working conditions that exist for those who provide interpretation services in Illinois, you can easily conclude that even with legislation that required interpretation services for victims and witnesses, and even with a more considerate judge presiding over this case, the chances of this victim getting accurate and professional interpretation services were very slim.

Although I live in Chicago, I do not know the state of Illinois court interpreters because in Chicago, just like in other big cities, state-level court interpreters and federally certified court interpreters do not work in the same places.  Chicago is a very international city with a great need for good capable interpreters who work its many conferences, countless professional and corporate training sessions, and the federal courts where only interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts can work. I still remember when I first moved to Chicago and tried to meet the Cook County Illinois court interpreters.  All I wanted to do was to let them know that I was their new neighbor. I took the telephone and called the main interpreter office.  A person answered the phone and before I could even tell him who I was, he told me that: “…well, you are an interpreter…we are not hiring anybody. We have all the people we need. Goodbye…” and he hung up on me.  I could not even tell him my name.  Frankly, after such a rude greeting I lost all desire to contact that office ever again.  Since these interpreters get paid between $15.00 and $25.00 per hour there was not even an economic incentive to try again.    Now the “hope” part of the posting.

Despite all the problems and irregularities above, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is currently developing a plan to provide access to the courts to those who do not speak English as their first language.  After all these years the U.S. Justice Department decided to enforce the requirement that all individuals have access to the administration of justice.  Basically, unless the states comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provide language access to all people, the federal government will stop all monies it presently gives to the states.  All states that were not in full compliance, and all others who did not even have a court interpreter certification program like in the case of Illinois, had to start planning and implementing these changes.  Last week I attended a Language Access to the Courts meeting sponsored by the Illinois Judicial Branch in Chicago.

The meeting was well organized and the attendance was very good.  The State government officials in charge of developing the plan seemed capable and enthusiastic.  Of course, there were different motivations among those in attendance:  There were those state administrators who want to keep the federal funds and see this as another hoop to jump through; the interpretation agencies were there to watch over their interests and make sure they are not left out of the game.  Some educational organizations were present in hopes of being awarded an interpreter certification training contract; some others were there for no other reason than a real commitment to equal justice; and of course some interpreters were there: non-certified interpreters who went to see what is coming to them, and certified court interpreters (I include myself in this group) to make sure that our profession is not diminished by the desire to get this implemented somehow in order to keep the federal funds coming.

There were valid and important points made during the meeting. This was good. Unfortunately, there were also remarks that frankly worried me.  It is clear, and fortunately the people from the State in charge of this program know it, that these changes from now until the day when we only see certified court interpreters in the Illinois courts is far away.  It was of concern to learn how court administrators do not know where in the world some important languages are spoken, or how they refer to certain languages as “dialects,” and it is really incredible to hear a judge say that as a bilingual person, he has no problem doing the entire hearing in the foreign language instead of waiting for an interpreter to get to the courtroom; but it also lets us comprehend the magnitude of the task ahead.  I selected the term “hope” for this posting because I really hope that this change happens. I want to trust those involved in the planning and implementation of this Language Access Plan.

It is important to remember that as professional certified interpreters we have to remain vigilant so that the certification requirements are not watered down, and more importantly, that the exceptions to the certification process do not happen. At least we have to make sure that they do not happen in those languages, like Spanish, where there are plenty of capable certified interpreters who hold a federal certification or a credential from another state.  It is essential that we make sure that to continue working, those already employed by the state courts as interpreters take the certification exam and pass it.  It is necessary that we educate the public and private bar so these attorneys know the difference between a certified court interpreter and an old-timer who cannot pass the test.  We have to make sure that the interpreter fee issue is discussed as part of this program.  In a state like Illinois, particularly in a metropolitan area like Chicago’s, the courts will never get the top-tier interpreters unless they pay them accordingly.  There are just too many other places where interpreters get a professional fee that takes into account the big city lifestyle with all of its expenses. As I said, I have hope; let’s make sure that it becomes reality so that we never again have to deal with a travesty of justice like the one perpetrated in Cook County Court last September.  I invite you to share your ideas and comments on both issues: The Cook County Court horror story, or the possibility of having a real court interpreter certification program in Illinois.

True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.

August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago.  One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time.  We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment.  After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.

We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for.  The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility.  The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place.  I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification.  It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.

Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left.  Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail.  I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal.  I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.

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