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.
February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months. The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time. After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.
The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are. A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world. Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.
This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts. For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification. This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive. Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam. This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals. Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns. The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.
The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available. There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language). Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary. At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system. Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer). This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.
There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office. This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.
Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation. These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.
The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.
There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road. Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above. This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program. Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.
This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years. Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board. As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.
I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.
SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results. I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing. If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.
Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest. I do not see it that way. The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff. Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case. As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring. Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student. This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.
In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract. I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters. I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are. Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.
This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize. The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change: (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters, and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.
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
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.