March 21, 2019 § 5 Comments
Quite a few colleagues from California and other states, even foreign countries, have contacted me to complain about certain practices, and even legislation, that directly deprives them from their right to make a living by practicing as freelance court interpreters.
In California, the full implementation of the so-called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) goes into effect full blast by 2020. This is a strategy adopted by the State to meet the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and keep California as beneficiary of federal funds attached to this legislation (http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/LAP-Fact-Sheet.pdf).
The State had already partially complied with the federal mandate when it was sued by a non-for-profit organization, now a member of the State’s Advisory Committee on this Plan. As a result, California decided to provide, free, interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters. This is a universal rule, not limited by income-based eligibility requirements, and it applies to both: low income litigants with no ability to pay for an interpreter, who benefit greatly from this service, and Fortune 500 corporations that appear in court represented by high-price attorneys and rely on the expert testimony of expensive witnesses.
This decision by the State has nothing to do with the preposterous practice, followed by many States, to dodge Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s mandate by creating de dubious “Justice System Interpreters” program (it goes by different names in various States) and save money, instead of fostering the development of real certified court interpreters and paying them a professional fee for their expert services. This mandatory policy California will fully implement by 2020 (unless the rule of law prevails and it is amended) impacts professional certified and registered (depending on the language combination) court interpreters.
California adopted a sweeping, populist demagogic policy that mandates free interpreting services for anybody in any court proceeding. At first, this looks like a fair and wise decision by a progressive State that wants to level the legal field for all its citizens, but if you just peel off the top layer, you discover the policy is wrong, expensive, incoherent, and illegal.
It is wrong because it treats all litigants the same way in non-criminal matters, going beyond Federal and State constitutional protections limited to criminal proceedings, and creating an even greater uneven field by rightly providing free interpreters to those civil litigants who cannot afford a private interpreter, and wrongly gifting the same option to those individuals and corporations with the means to pay for these services. A well-intentioned solution resulted in a policy that makes no sense.
It is expensive because the interpreters providing this service will be paid by the State of California through a judicial fund, wasting valuable taxpayer money in interpreter fees that should be paid by those civil matters’ litigants who can afford them. Court interpreter programs need more financial resources in California and elsewhere, and a State willing to invest money in language access programs should allocate those funds to professional development and better pay for those freelance interpreters serving criminal courts and interpreting civil matters for indigent litigants, not big business and wealthy individuals.
It is incoherent because Congress’ intent, in advancing these constitutional protections, was to give all individuals, regardless of their financial situation, the same access to the administration of justice even where they speak a language other than English. The legislator never envisioned a situation where taxpayers’ money would cover expenses derived of civil litigation, where life and liberty are not at stake, to favor those who do not need financial assistance. Under a rational basis criterion, taxpayers’ interest to judiciously spend their money substantially outweighs the needs of Fortune 500 businesses and millionaires to get an interpreter free of charge in civil matters.
It is illegal, because implementing this policy mandates all court administrators, managing interpreters, chief judges, and others in charge of court interpreting services at the courthouse level, to provide free interpreters in all civil cases, and, as it has been (almost) unanimously interpreted by these government agents, this means that freelance court interpreters should be banned and excluded from all civil court proceedings when their services are not paid by the judiciary, even when litigants prefer the services of independent court interpreters and they will pay for their services. California legislation establishes the requirements to practice court interpreting in the State as a certified or registered court interpreter (depending on the language combination). Perhaps these certification and registration requirements are meant to qualify as a court interpreter contracted by the court, but for the sake of argument, and because having certified and registered interpreters serve courts and litigants better, let’s assume however, requirements are necessary to practice as a court interpreter. Conclusion: As long interpreters meet the requirements, and until these credentials are suspended or revoked, they should be admitted to practice in any proceeding when the parties retain their services.
The other professional in a civil proceeding is the attorney. All parties may retain the attorney of their choice to represent them in any court matters; those who cannot pay for legal representation can seek assistance by non-for-profit organizations that provide attorneys for free or on a sliding scale. Attorneys are not excluded from a proceeding when paid by one party. I understand that, if you only see this situation from the litigants’ perspective, the issue is not exactly the same. Indigent litigants can appear in court pro-se if they cannot afford a lawyer, but non-English speakers cannot represent themselves, and their access to the administration of justice must be guaranteed by providing a court interpreter; however, in civil cases, said right should be tempered by the individuals ability to pay for an interpreter, so indigent litigants enjoy an even field with English speakers, taxpayers money is not wasted on paying for the services of an interpreter they can easily afford on their own, and freelance civil court interpreters can exercise their right to practice in the courts of California when their client will pay for their services.
Please remember that I am referring to those cases where litigants can pick their interpreters, just as wealthy people choose their doctors, lawyers, and accountants. I am not including in this category services provided by freelance court interpreters to indigent plaintiffs and defendants who cannot pay such fees but retain the interpreting services because they ignore a program would furnish an interpreter at no cost if they financially qualify for it.
The cases that concern my colleagues, and worry me as a member of the profession, are those controversies so complex, they need expert attorneys, witnesses and interpreters. These require of months of preparation, where interpreters are a crucial part of the legal team and often travel overseas with lawyers and investigators for interviews, inspections, and depositions. I am also talking about civil trials dealing with topics so sophisticated that attorneys, sometimes by agreement of the parties, hire freelance interpreters, not to be part of the plaintiff’s or defense’s team, but to interpret all court proceedings for the judge and jury. These interpreters are selected because of their experience on a particular subject, or because of their known skill and diligence, needed to prepare for a difficult, long trial, where branding, reputation, and a lot of money are at stake.
Some of our colleagues have told me that interpreters’ professional associations, interpreters’ labor unions (where they exist) and even staff interpreters oppose an amendment that will allow independent contractor civil court interpreters back in the courtroom.
This should not be the case. Staff interpreters should be glad to have one less issue to worry about. Civil Law and proceedings are very complex. Inexperienced civil court interpreters, even when they may have many years of criminal court practice, which encompasses most of those working as independent contractors with the courts, are prone to make mistakes when dealing with unfamiliar subjects and little time to prepare for a case. Professional associations, labor unions, and interpreters’ guilds are about advancing and protecting the profession. Excluding civil court interpreters from State courtrooms benefits no one. Even when the excluded professional is a non-unionized independent contractor, or these colleagues are not members of the professional association or guild, any policy that irrationally limits the livelihood of a group of interpreters eligible to perform a service hurts the profession and damages all, unionized, independent, and staffers. All agencies devoted to the advancement and protection of the profession must understand that independents, staffers, or members of a different association are not the enemy, we all play for the same team. We must channel our energy and resources to change legislation, regulations, and government policy like this one. We must remember: Those driving professional fees down, lowering professional standards, and destroying decent working conditions are the greedy agencies, not our fellow interpreters. In places like California where a professional association specifically deals with the interests of independent contractor court interpreters, such as AIJIC (http://www.aijic.org/), ask them to lead the campaign and support them in these efforts. States where there is not a professional association of independent or in general judiciary interpreters, local and State-wide professional associations must protect the profession by assuming leadership in this and other matters that affect professional interpreters in their State or region.
I have heard that government officials are unwilling to rectify because they do not want to lose face; that they worry about not getting federal funds if found noncompliant with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; that they problem is stubbornness or ignorance of the interpreter profession or disregard for what interpreters do in a court proceeding.
Government officials must put constituents first and sometimes this means that a law, regulations, or public policy need to be amended. Can you imagine our country without the Twenty-first Constitutional Amendment repealing prohibition because legislators wanted to save face? Federal authorities over at the Justice Department would never retain federal funds from a State unless there was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. As long as there is equal access to the administration of justice, and the access is guaranteed to those who speak a language other than English by providing a free interpreter to those who cannot afford to hire one on their own.
The situation may be more difficult when dealing with stubborn or ignorant public servants. Here, after reasoning and dialogue takes you nowhere, and there is no other option, interpreters’ professional associations, such as AIJIC, supported by other national and local associations, including interpreter labor unions and guilds, should stop wasting their time with government officials who do not want to listen, and take their concerns to the interested parties: Attorney State Bars, local Bars, ethnic and gender-based Bars, Law Schools, Judicial Colleges and Associations, carefully targeted judges and legislators (not bureaucratic committees ruled by the same rigid individuals they could not convince before), and social media. Make the case that quality suffers when unprepared interpreters work in a case; clarify that certified and registered court interpreters cannot be denied access to the place where they find their livelihood. Help them see this situation your way; they have an interest on this policy, but it does not impact the way they make a living if left unchanged.
Civil court interpreting is a niche. Most certified and registered court interpreters are not familiar with civil law and procedure; court interpreter certification exams cover criminal law and procedure, not civil law. Since the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nationwide during the Obama years, I have talked to many court interpreters scheduled by the courts to interpret civil matters who feel apprehensive and not-prepared. Even though the purpose of this post, and all my posts really, is to protect our profession and show all issues from the often-ignored interpreter’s perspective, often, the quality of the rendition and the administration of justice, would greatly improve if freelance civil court interpreters are welcomed back to the courtrooms in California and elsewhere. I now invite you share with the rest of us the situation of these civil court interpreters in your State, given the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. I would also like to hear from those colleagues in other countries who may be facing a similar situation. Finally, please share your ideas to right this wrong.
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.
January 15, 2018 § 4 Comments
Most professional, dedicated, court interpreters in Europe and the United States are constantly fighting against the establishment: government authorities who want to dodge the responsibility of administering justice to all, regardless of the language they speak, by procuring a warm body next to the litigant in the courtroom regardless of the skill and knowledge of the individual; ignorant and egotistical judges who believe they know everything about language access and interpreting, and make absurd decisions, when they know less about our profession than anyone else in the room; bilingual lawyers who cannot tell the difference between being a professional interpreter and speaking a second language with limited proficiency; monolingual attorneys who believe interpreting is easy and interpreters are only an intransigent bunch demanding nonsensical work conditions (like team interpreting) and get paid for what they do more than they deserve; and of course, greedy unscrupulous agencies who spend most of their time trying to figure out two things: How to pay interpreters less, and how to sell a mediocre paraprofessional low fee foreign-language speaker to their clients.
There are exceptions everywhere and in some latitudes court interpreting can be performed at a high quality level (even though, in my opinion, most court interpreters are still getting paid very little compared to the other actors in a court proceeding such as attorneys, expert witnesses, and judges), but there are no places, that I know of, at least in the United States, where you can find the support, understanding, and respect I found in Mexico during their transition from written court proceedings to oral trials where interpreters play a more relevant role they ever did under the old system.
During the last two years I have attended many conferences, meetings, one-on-one interviews, where I have talked to the parties invested in the system about the work court interpreters do, the need for some quality control process such as an accreditation or certification of the professional court interpreter, the non-negotiable principle that interpreters must make a professional fee that will let them have the lifestyle they may choose and will retain them as practitioners of the interpreting profession, and the work conditions for the professional court interpreter to provide the expected service. I have had many memorable experiences, and I will share with you those that I consider essential turning points in the design of the court interpreting profession in Mexico.
For the past two years I have attended the “Taller de profesionalización de los servicios de interpretación de Lengua de Señas Mexicana en el ámbito jurídico” (Professionalization of Mexican Sign Language legal interpreting services workshop), the brain child of Mexico’s federal judge Honorable María del Carmen Carreón, who has done more for the court interpreting profession than any person I know who is not an interpreter. Judge Carreón and her team organized these workshops that bring together Mexican Sign Language interpreters from all over the Mexican Republic, the most influential Sign Language Interpreter professional associations in the country, legal and language scholars, attorneys from all fields, and judges from all levels and jurisdictions: from Federal Supreme Court Justices and State Supreme Court Justices, to federal and state criminal, civil, family, administrative, and electoral judges.
These participants meet for three days at different locations: courthouses and universities, to learn from each other, and exchange ideas on how to make it easier for court interpreters so they can fulfill their role in the administration of justice to all individuals, regardless of the language they speak. The new court interpreting manual I recently published results from this extraordinary professional relationship that has developed among my co-authors: Judge Carreón and Daniel Maya, president of the largest professional association of Sign Language interpreters in Mexico, and me (Manual del Intérprete Judicial en México, Carreón, Rosado, Maya. Editorial Tirant Lo Blanch).
During these trips, I have witnessed the willingness of all parties to learn the new system together, I heard often about the commitment to a good professional fee for those interpreters who get a court interpreter patent as a “perito” (equivalent to a certification or accreditation in other countries), and I saw a system with a new culture of cooperation where interpreters getting materials and full access to a case will be the rule and not the exception. I saw how all actors understand the need for team interpreting without even questioning the reasons behind this universally accepted policy. I heard judges telling interpreters to come to them with their suggestions and requests, and lawyers who want to learn how to work with the interpreter. Our manual has been presented before many institutions, including courthouses and attorneys’ forums to standing room only.
It was at one workshop, and through Judge Carreón, that I met Mexico City Civil Court Judge Eliseo Juan Hernández Villaverde and Mexico City Family Court Judge Teófilo Abdo Kuri. Both judges graciously invited me to their courtrooms so I could observe how the oral proceedings are being carried under the new legislation, and to have a dialogue on court interpreters’ best practices so our Mexican colleagues can provide their service under close to ideal conditions.
At their respective courtrooms I met their staff and I saw how everyone was treated with dignity and respect. After fruitful talks with both judges, I observed the proceedings, and afterwards met with the judges to physically suggest changes to the courtroom to make it more “interpreter-friendly” to both: sign and spoken language interpreters. To my surprise, these suggestions were welcomed immediately, and Judge Hernández Villaverde rearranged the courtroom right on the spot, in my presence, to make sure that everything was as suggested. Finally, it was agreed that court interpreters and those studying interpreting will have regular visits to their courtrooms where they will observe proceedings and after the hearing can ask questions to the judges.
A major factor in the success that Mexico is enjoying, is due to the absence of irresponsible interpreting agencies that hire a high school level “coordinator” to recruit paraprofessionals and convince them to work for a fee (they call rate) that will seem good to them (compared to their minimum wage job prior to becoming an “interpreter”) but would be insulting and disrespectful to any professional interpreter charging the professional fees that their service commands.
There are some in Mexico, judges, attorneys, and interpreters, who are not fully on board, but they are not stopping the new culture. They are not killing the excitement and willingness of all parties to grow professionally in the new legal system the country has adopted. There are many things to do, but an environment fosters the achievement of those goals.
I hope that me sharing the situation of the court interpreting profession in Mexico can inspire many of us in other countries and legal systems, and teach us to keep fighting for what is right without ever giving up in our dealings with the judiciary, and to never give in to the insulting conditions offered by those who want to see us as an “industry” instead of a profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your goals and achievements within your courthouses or hospitals (for healthcare interpreters).
December 10, 2017 § 3 Comments
I have recently read many comments about the court interpreter in California who decided to talk to the media after she provided her services to the defendant in a high profile criminal case. To my surprise, must comments promptly endorsed the position that a court interpreter cannot make any public comment. Such extreme “black and white opinion” is quite concerning.
Before expressing such a sweeping opinion, interpreters should reflect on the purpose of their professional service, the reasons for the rule or legislation, and what the consequences of failing to observe it really are. Let’s see:
The main topic concerning this analysis is confidentiality. The nature of the duty of confidentiality is based on two things: the subject matter or area of interpretation, and a scale of values.
Different subject matters or fields of interpreting will be governed by different legislation, interests, and goals. If the interpreter’s professional practice involves intellectual property, diplomacy, or national security, there will be many limitations and restrictions as to the things the interpreter can share with others. Most of these duties will come from legislation, not canons of ethics of regulations. Many others will derive from contractual obligations regarding commercial brands, patents and copyrights.
The scale of values is also important: The more important the value, the stricter the responsibility.
Revealing the content of diplomatic negotiations could have implications of war and peace, and the interpreter could even go to prison, or at least lose his job and reputation.
Revealing medical information can disrupt a patient’s health or treatment, impact insurance coverage, kill a patient’s future employment opportunities, and generate legal problems for hospitals, physicians and interpreters.
When we provide diplomatic or military interpreting services at certain level, we are required to undergo a security clearance process and we take a legally binding oath to secrecy. Breaching this legal obligation will bring catastrophic consequences to the interpreter.
The California case gives us the opportunity to revisit a court interpreter’s duty of confidentiality, so we can see how sweeping statements like those made by some of our colleagues last week, most of them in good faith, are not so categorically right.
First, we need to understand what is protected by the duty of confidentiality, and who imposes the restrictions on the court interpreter.
Interpreters exist because there must be equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language the court or the parties to a controversy speak. Here we must make a distinction:
(1) The court interpreter as a communication tool to the litigant.
When a plaintiff, defendant or victim cannot actively participate in their legal case because of a language barrier, the court interpreter acts as the ears and voice of the foreign language speaker in communications with the court, his attorneys, and the opposite party. Interpreters render a complete, accurate interpretation of everything that is said during the hearing, and interpret to the court and parties everything the foreign language speaker says. These interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.
These are the interpreters hired by the court, paid from the courthouse budget, and selected from a roster kept by the clerk’s office.
When a plaintiff or defendant want to be represented by a private attorney, but they cannot communicate with their attorneys because of a language barrier, those privately retained attorneys can also hire professionals court interpreters in private practice to help them communicate with their foreign speaking client, their client’s relatives, and with those witnesses who do not speak the language of the attorneys. In this case it is the attorney who selects the interpreters from prior experiences or referrals from others; and it is the attorney, not the court, who pays the interpreters’ fees (very likely from the plaintiff or defendant’s assets). This interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.
As we can see, in both cases, interpreters work with information that is public record. This means that everybody has access to what was said or done. For example: As a rule, court hearings are open to the public. Anybody can go to the courthouse and sit in the courtroom during a trial. At the State-level, many jurisdictions broadcast their proceedings in public and even commercial TV. All legal arguments, court rulings, and witness statements are heard by all interested individuals.
Both, court appointed and privately retained interpreters are privy to confidential information not because of who the interpreters are as individuals, buy because of what they do for living. This information is sensitive in nature and if disclosed, it could adversely impact third party innocent individuals. For these reasons, interpreters are usually barred from sharing this information. Details surrounding a case that come to the knowledge of the parties, but are irrelevant to the outcome of the controversy are kept from the public. Names of business partners, financial information, paternity, personal health information, sealed court cases, juvenile court records, are just some of the examples that fall under this category.
While working with an attorney, all interpreters learn what is called privileged information. This is crucial, intimate information about the subject matter of the controversy that lawyers need to know to represent their clients and defend their interests. This information is treated differently because it is only when a person knows that statements made to their attorney in confidence cannot be disclosed to anyone, not even the judge or jury in the case, that clients can truly open up to their attorneys and share all details of a case. Those acting as agents of the attorney, such as paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, are covered by the client-attorney privilege, and nobody, not even a judge can compel them to disclose said privileged information.
(2) The court interpreter as auxiliary agent to the administration of justice.
The court system has a vested interest on the perception that the administration of justice within its jurisdiction is equally fair to all citizens, even those who do not speak the language of the court. For this reason, courts have set policy to clarify this principle, and reassure all potential litigants of the impartiality of the court, even in those cases when a foreigner is party to a controversy, especially in criminal cases where life or liberty are at stake.
This principle has motivated some courts (not all of them), in particular in the United States, to go beyond what many would consider reasonable, and impose the strictest restrictions to some of the things court interpreters can and cannot do. Based on this one-sided extremely restrictive rules, the federal courts of the United States abide by the United States District Court Code of Ethics for court interpreters, who have been sworn as officers of the court for the duration of the assignment, and interpret under contract with such court, “…to follow the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts…” (USDC Code of Ethics. Preamble)
The Federal Code of Ethics contains some important principles needed to practice the court interpreter profession that are free of controversy, such as Rule 5: “Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information…”
It also covers other situations where restrictions seem unreasonable and arbitrary, like Rule 3 where it states that: “…During the course of the proceedings, interpreters shall not converse with parties, witnesses, …attorneys, or with friends and relatives of the party, except in the discharge of their official functions…”, or Rule 6: “Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential…”
Dear friends and colleagues, we must remember that the above restrictions by the United States District Court Code of Ethics only apply to court interpreters who are providing their professional services when they “…are sworn in (and) they become, for the duration of the assignment, officers of the court with the specific duty and responsibility of interpreting between English and the language specified. …In their capacity as officers of the court, contract court interpreters are expected to follow the standards for performance and professional responsibility for contract court interpreters in the federal courts…”
In other words, said restrictions, as they are not the law, but a mere contractual obligation, only apply to those who are providing their services in federal court pursuant to a contract with the court. These blanket restrictions do not apply to any of us when working as interpreters in federal court if we have been retained by one of the parties.
Once we understand this limitation, and the different role interpreters play when they act as a communication tool to the litigant with his attorneys, and in those cases when they also act as an auxiliary arm to the administration of justice and are paid by their judiciary. It is obvious that legal restrictions and limitations such as client-attorney privilege and confidentiality will apply to all interpreters as they are part of the essence of the legal representation, but other limitations that go beyond that scope will not apply to privately retained interpreters as they exist to assure impartiality and transparency to the extreme. This is not necessary with private attorneys and their interpreters as they are publicly known as part of a team: plaintiff’s or defendant’s.
To the latter group of interpreters, sharing what is already public record should be no problem; and in my personal opinion, I do not believe that even court appointed interpreters should be sanctioned for sharing public information with the media. I believe that telling a reporter that a hearing was moved from 1 pm to 2 pm and saving her the trouble to go up 20 stories to read the same information on the court’s bulletin board will hardly raise suspicion of prejudice, particularity when we know that interpreting is a fiduciary profession. To me, it looks very weird when the interpreter refuses to answer such silly questions and reacts by moving away without an explanation.
As far as confidential information, please be aware that the prohibition is not absolute either. A court order can compel you to testify. Please remember that the client holds the right to said confidentiality, and as such, he or she can always give consent. When this happens, confidentiality goes away. Will these ever happen in your professional career? We do not know, but we should always be aware that it is a possibility.
Even client-attorney privilege is not absolute. There are certain exceptions in the law that allow you to pierce the veil of this sacrosanct privilege. Among other possibilities, the client, who holds the privilege, can also lift it by giving consent; you can also pierce it when defending yourself from the actions of the client who holds said privilege. Let’s say that the client sues you arguing that the interpreter did nothing in the case. Under those circumstances you can pierce the privilege to prove that the client is not telling the truth and show the work you did, as long as the privileged information you divulged is limited and tailored to the point you are trying to prove in court. Statements and information provided during a client-attorney communication that include future illegal activity is not covered by the privilege either, and you as interpreter must disclose it to the authorities.
We must remember at all times that different jurisdictions will have different policy, rules and legislation, so we must adhere to all applicable rules, as long as they apply to us, depending on the type of professional service we are going to provide.
In the case of California, please keep all of the above in mind, and understand that Rule 2.890(c)(4) states that: “…An interpreter must not make statements to any person about the merits of the case until the litigation has concluded…”
Notice how the rule does not go beyond the conclusion of the case, because the rule (erroneously in my opinion) does not make a distinction between interpreters privately retained by the parties who act as a communication tool to the litigant, and those retained by the courts who also must play the role of auxiliary agents to the administration of justice and therefore be impartial at all times. Once there are no more appeals, there is no reason for the restriction on the first type of interpreter.
Finally, a couple of thoughts: I was saddened to see how must of my colleagues immediately assume the role of a criminal court interpreter retained by the court. I am always hoping that more interpreters view themselves as independent professionals working with private attorneys. There is an abysmal difference in professional fees, and the work is about the same. I ask you to please think like a private practitioner, instead of accepting the rules without any reservation. Question the rules and try to understand why they compel you to do or abstain from doing something.
It also concerned me how so many of our court interpreter colleagues rush to “obey” anything the courts say without even checking the source of the “command”. Many people criticized and condemned the interpreter who spoke to the media because of what the “Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters” say. Please understand that this is just a manual, not legislation, regulations, or a court decision. It is just a didactic tool for those who are trying to understand the profession. Use it as such. Observe the California Rules of Court.
I hope we all understand that professional rules include universal standard values, but they also incorporate local culture so necessary for an administration of justice that reflects the values of the community it is meant to serve. For this reason, I. Sincerely hope we all come to understand that asking for universal rules or codes is not the best legal option. A system like the one we have is an appropriate one. We just need to understand the rules better, and fight to change those we believe constitute a hurdle to our profession. I now ask you to please share your founded legal arguments on this issue that could adversely impact our profession.
February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States. All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.
As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system. The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight. Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.
Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.
This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.
It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.
The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:
During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.
Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases. Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.
This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.
When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.
They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!
The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.
This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.
As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.
This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.
The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.
Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada. It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available. Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.
The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.
Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality. The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.
I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.
I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:
First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor. Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.
Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.
I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.