Lack of understanding, common sense = constitutional conflict in court?

November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

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.

Ignoring court certifications is turning fashionable.

April 23, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Legal certainty is the foundation of any system of justice administration. Modern society cannot function in an environment where people are afraid to act because they ignore the outcome of their efforts. Human creativity and progress need a certainty that a set of actions will produce a desired outcome, and the peace of mind fostered by an absolute trust in an honest, capable and independent judge who will clarify what is confusing and decide what is contested according to law and equity.

All civilized nations enshrine these principles in their national constitution and create international courts of justice to address controversies that go beyond their own jurisdiction. To work, this system requires of honest, independent, capable, skilled, and knowledgeable professionals who serve as judges, attorneys and other officers of the court, including court interpreters.

No legal system can be fair when some are denied access to justice because of the language they speak, and no access to the administration of justice can be effective unless its services are provided by skilled professionals who have met rigorous standards set by the authority under the principles of equal justice uncompromised by expediency or convenience.

Every day we see how more nations adopt these principles, sometimes because of the realization of the truths above, and sometimes because the change is imposed by the unstoppable waive of globalization. Countries have changed their legal systems to incorporate these values, and as part of these changes, they have adopted legislation requiring court interpreters to be professional, ethical, skilled and knowledgeable. Some have called this process certification, others licensing, concession of patent, accreditation, etcetera.

Countries like the United States have developed a solid and reputable system of certification at both levels of government: federal and state.  Because the overwhelming majority of non-English speakers in the U.S. speak Spanish, all states and federal government have developed a certification process (licensing process in Texas) for Spanish language court interpreters. The federal government has issued federal court interpreter certifications in Navajo and Haitian Creole as well. To satisfy their local needs, states have adopted certifications for the most widely spoken languages, other than Spanish, in their jurisdiction; these certifications vary depending on the demographics of each state. Both, the federal and state judiciaries have adopted a system to classify court interpreters of languages without certification program as accredited or qualified.

Court interpreter certifications guarantee litigants and judges those officers of the court who provide interpreting services in a court procedure have demonstrated, through a rigorous scientific testing process, to have the minimum required skills, knowledge, and ethics to practice as professional certified court interpreters. Accredited and qualified court interpreters give litigants and judges an assurance that the federal or state system in charge of language access services was convinced of the skill, moral character and professionalism of these interpreters by alternate means to the certification process non-existent for that language combination.  It all boils down to the basic principle of legal certainty.

Many countries have a dual system of administration of justice: There is a judiciary as an independent branch of government that decides controversies between individuals, government entities, and in criminal cases. There is also a sui-generis administrative court system that exists not as a part of the judiciary or as an independent branch of government, but as an independent entity within the executive branch at both: federal and state levels. These administrative courts deal with civil law controversies of the administrative type where individuals dispute certain actions, benefits, entitlements, and rights that must be protected, conferred, or denied by an agency of the executive branch of government. The best known administrative courts in the United States are Immigration, Social Security and Workers’ Compensation.

Because these administrative courts are not part of the judicial branch of government, rules, policies and requirements pervasive in the judiciary do not extend to these so-called Article 1 Courts (because they are created by legislation, not the constitution) as opposed to Article 3 Courts (created by Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution). Rigorous criteria for court interpreter certification, created for legal certainty, are not applied or followed by most administrative courts, leaving the door open to those seeking shortcuts, opportunity, and financial gain with absolute disregard for judicial certainty and the best interests of the parties to a controversy.

A few weeks ago the Immigration Courts in the United States (Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR) publicly announced they were hiring Spanish language interpreters nationwide to work in the immigration courts. Although this would place these interpreters directly under the supervision and control of the court, a big improvement over having people providing interpreting services in immigration court under the supervision of SOSi, the well-known language services provider that earned the contract by bidding lower than the rest, it is still bad policy that will eventually harm those who go to immigration court seeking relief.

EOIR’s announcement requires no reputable universally accepted court interpreter certification (federal or state level). It only requires candidates to pass a test with no scientific validation offered online.

This tendency to retain lesser qualified individuals for matters that could eventually affect someone’s life forever, such as a removal or an asylum case, is echoed by those who also settle for less interpreting quality in exchange for more money and argue that non-certified court interpreters, even if healthcare certified, or those who take cover under the unrecognized so-called “community interpreter” credential, are qualified to interpret depositions!

Depositions are a very delicate legal proceeding because they take place outside the presence of a judge. This means they require of an even more experienced certified court interpreter, not a lesser qualified paraprofessional. The most complex litigation, the ones involving enormous amounts of money, the ones often dealing with conflict of jurisdictions and legal systems, those governed by international conventions, and for those very reasons, the ones where interpreters earn the highest fees, always start with depositions very difficult even for many seasoned court interpreters.

Multi-million dollar lawsuits, intellectual property infringements, trade wars between nations, the livelihood of an injured worker who will never work again, removal proceedings that will keep a person outside the country for the rest of her/his life, asylum hearings, often an applicant’s last hope to protect her/his life, liberty and family unity are not less complicated cases. We cannot leave the administration of justice for those who do not speak the language of the court, judicial or administrative, in the hands of greedy agencies, ignorant unscrupulous authorities, and opportunists and incompetent paraprofessionals. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic and the disturbing tendencies we see.

Do some state courts treat foreigners as second-class litigants?

February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Is this practice demeaning to certified court interpreters?

February 26, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States and other jurisdictions interpreters are officers of the court. From the moment interpreters begin to work in court, they hear the term thrown around all the time. They are told that much is expected from them as officers of the court, and at the same time they see how annoyed some court employees get when an interpreter is part of a hearing.

One of the least pleasurable things about court interpreting is the need to endure uncomfortable attitudes, and absurd policies, by many clerks, support staff, attorneys, court administrators, and even judges. This environment has turned off many excellent interpreters, and deprived non-native speakers of the benefit of some of the most capable and professional individuals.

Court interpreting presents many unavoidable challenges to the professional interpreter, and they have to be dealt with in order to reach the goal of equal access to justice: lay and legal terminology, evasive speakers who at best reluctantly tell the truth, poor acoustics, obsolete interpreting equipment or the lack of it, long hours, and low pay, are some of the realities that court interpreters face every day at work. Most of them cannot be fixed by a bigger budget or more competent court administrators; they are part of the “nature of the beast.” Let’s face it: many people do not go to court voluntarily, some appear before a judge or jury when they are angry, scared, embarrassed, and a good number of them have trouble with telling the truth. Court interpreting is very hard; but not all of its difficulties are due to bad acoustics, a whispering attorney, or a fast-speaking witness. Some of them are generated artificially, they do not belong in the courthouse; they are the result of ignorance and lack of understanding.

When the spirit of justice and the passion for the law are no longer there, many of the top interpreters abandon the field. Being ignored by the clerk, patronized by the judge, criticized by the attorney, and to constantly walk into an environment where the interpreter often feels like he is more of an obstacle to the process than an essential part of the administration of justice, seems to outweigh the low and rarely timely pay. We all know, and have accepted or rejected these circumstances; many are trying to change them through education or negotiating their labor conditions, and many freelance interpreters have relocated their court work from the top of their priority list to the middle and even to the bottom.

The question is my friends: Are we really officers of the court? The legislation says we are, but, what does it mean to be an officer of the court? According to Black’s: an officer of the court is “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system. Typically, officer of the court refers to a judge, clerk, bailiff, sheriff, or the like…” it adds that an officer of the court “…is obliged to obey court rules and… owes a duty of candor to the court…” Interpreters fall into this category as one of “the like”. This has been widely recognized by most state legislations, and it is explained by the United States’ National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) position paper on the interpreter’s scope of practice: “…By virtue of the role we play in the administration of justice, many courts have stated outright that the interpreter is an officer of the court…” To put it in lay terms: court interpreters are officers of the court because they are part of the judicial system to administer justice, and as such, they are subject to strict professional and ethical rules, and to specific legislation. There is no doubt that especially, certified court interpreters are strictly regulated as professionals: they need to go through a certification or licensing process that culminates with passing a rigorous exam, in most cases (sadly, not the federal program) they must meet continuing education requirements to keep said certification or license, and they have to abide by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. It could be argued that noncertified court interpreters may not fit the description as they do not have to meet all the requirements above. However, even noncertified court interpreters must observe the rules of ethics when working in a court-related case.

So, where is the demeaning practice I mentioned at the top of this post? It is at the time that certified court interpreters are placed under oath over and over again, every day, all over the United States.

To practice their profession, all officers of the court are subject to eligibility requirements: judges, attorneys, and certified court interpreters have to meet them to work in the system. All officers of the court have the duty to obey the law, and the responsibility to act ethically and professionally. For this reason, all of them are required to take an oath: judges take the oath when they are appointed or elected to the bench, attorneys are administered an oath after they pass the bar exam, court clerks take an oath when they are hired by the judiciary. They all take the oath once!

In some states, and in some United States judicial districts, certified court interpreters are only required to take their oath once (for that jurisdiction) and a record is kept in file for future reference. This is a great practice not only because it saves taxpayers money by shortening the hearings, and the savings can be a significant in cases when the same certified court interpreter is administered the oath, in the same courtroom, over ten times in one day. Equally important, from the certified court interpreters’ perspective, is the recognition of their status as officers of the court, and the very important message by the system that certified court interpreters are going to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Unfortunately, to eradicate this demeaning practice that places certified court interpreters as second class officers of the court, we will need more than just educating judges and attorneys, convincing court administrators, and pushing interpreter coordinators who work for the courts so they stand up and support the freelance certified court interpreters on this one. It will require a legislative change in many cases. Believe it or not, there is legislation in some states requiring that interpreters be placed under oath before each court proceeding.

A 2012 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (U.S. v. Solorio) held interpreters who translate the testimony of witnesses on the stand are covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 604 and that they are subject to “…the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation…” However, the Appeals Court ruled that “…Rule 604 does not…indicate whether such an oath must be administered in any particular manner or at any specified time, including whether the oath must be administered for each trial. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has published guidelines on the administration of oath to interpreters, observing that policies in regard to the oath of interpreters vary from district to district and from judge to judge [Guide to Judiciary Policy §350(b)] Although some courts administer oaths to interpreters each day, or once for an entire case, others administer the oath to staff and contract interpreters once, and keep it on file…”

The legal argument above can be used by certified court interpreters to advance their efforts to get rid of this “second-class treatment” by some courts, but the road will not be easy, and in some cases, the biggest obstacle will be bilingual judges in positions of authority who do not quite understand the role of the interpreter as that of an officer of the court. Judge Ruben Castillo, as co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee, and presently the Chief Judge for the United States Northern District of Illinois, favors administering the oath for each case, stating that: “…I happen to be a Spanish speaker, and I’ve seen misrepresentations occur…under the pressure of instantaneous interpretation, especially in cases involving a lot of slang…mistakes can occur. When under oath, most people take the job more seriously…” As you can see, devaluating the certified court interpreter’s professionalism is also used to continue this demeaning practice. It is obvious that judges need to be educated to the professional status of the certified court interpreter. The oath does nothing to improve an interpreter’s skills, but it does a lot to show us that there is a long way to go before we can sit at the table as equals in many jurisdictions. I can see a need to place under oath noncertified or occasional interpreters (not all languages have enough demand to generate a professional practice) but certified court interpreters should be treated as all other officers of the court whose professional scope of practice goes beyond that of a witness.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this matter.

As interpreters we must remain at the table of our largest professional association.

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Next week we will meet in San Diego during the American Translators Association annual conference. We will attend interesting presentations, establish new contacts, greet old friends, buy books, and we will have a lot of fun.  However, we will also gather to do something else that is particularly important for all interpreters: we will vote for three directors to the ATA Board. These new officials will represent our interests before the Board for the next three years.

As a professional association, ATA has thirteen officials that make policy and decide issues that affect us all as an organization. We have a President, a President-elect, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and 9 directors.  Being a board member is a hard job, it requires a lot of time and effort and the reward is usually the satisfaction of a job well-done.  We are very fortunate to have very capable and dedicated people at the top of ATA.

The number of translators and interpreters in the organization’s membership are pretty similar, but only two of these thirteen officials are interpreters.   They all do a magnificent job, but it is these interpreters that really voice our perspective in the boardroom. We are two professions united by the word, written and spoken.  I am writing this piece because those two spaces where we as interpreters are represented in the boardroom are up for reelection.  In other words, if we lose one of those two seats we will end up with nothing as it used to be in the past.  In the pursuit of a more balanced organization we should strive to bring our representation up. To do that we cannot afford to lose these two seats. We just can’t.

Cristina D. Helmerichs is a veteran of our profession. She has a professional and administrative resume better than most. She has been an honest and measured voice for all ATA interpreters during the last three years. She was instrumental in the change of the organization’s tag that for the first time included us, the interpreters, as part of the association’s identity.  She presently chairs the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, and a couple of years ago she played a significant role on an effort to understand and include many more of our colleagues who were frankly on the verge of leaving ATA and other professional organizations because they felt excluded and ignored. Cristina was Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors from 1996 to 2004. During her tenure NAJIT saw unprecedented growth in membership; she is also a founder of the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) and an active member of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association.

Cristina complements these impressive administrative credentials with her professional trajectory as an interpreter. She has worked in the federal court system nationwide, she has been a pillar to the court interpreter scene in the state of Texas for many years, and she has been a conference interpreter all over the country.  Cristina is a regular interpreter trainer, a workshop instructor, and a rater of the federal court interpreter examination.  I know all these things because I have been a member of these organizations when Cristina has been in charge; I have worked with her all over the country interpreting, teaching, and rating federal exams. I have traveled half way across the world with Cristina. I have pet her dogs at her home, and I have been her classmate when we studied diplomatic conference interpretation in Argentina together.  Cristina has been a great friend and she is a spectacular human being. Anybody in Austin will agree with this statement.  I invite you to vote for her next week because we need her at the table.

I also encourage you to reelect Odile J. Legeay, the other interpreter on the board.  Odile is another great professional and very capable board member. During the last three years she has been instrumental in the development of tools that have come to aide all freelancers, such as the standard agreement she developed. Odile is also a great human being. I know all these things because just as in Cristina’s case, I have seen it first-hand. I have worked with her, attended conferences and activities with her, and I have been to her home in Houston where I have seen how well-liked and loved by her peers she is. Together with Cristina, Odile is a voice that we as interpreters must keep at the top of ATA’s decision-making structure. We need their representation. In fact we cannot afford to do without either one of them.

It is also relevant to mention that Cristina and Odile are two of only three Spanish linguists on the board. This is also important when we think that ATA is the most important professional association in the United States, and the U.S. is the number two country with the most Spanish speakers in the world just behind Mexico.  Voting to reelect Cristina and Odile will continue to allow all ATA interpreters to have a voice on a Board of Directors where an overwhelming majority of the members are translators, and it will also help ATA to be more representative of its community (The United States of America) and its membership (Spanish interpreters and translators) by keeping two of the Spanish linguists as part of the Board. The other Spanish linguist, a translator, is not up for reelection this time.

Finally, because this election day we can vote for three directors, I would like to invite you to also vote for Corinne McKay. She is not an interpreter, she is a French<>English translator (and a very good one) who has been instrumental to our joint profession. I know Corinne as a person and she is a great human being, she is responsible and committed. I had a chance to observe her up-close when she was President of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA). At the time I was living in Colorado and I was Chair of the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters (CAPI). I have seen Corinne present at professional conferences, I saw the key role she played during the ATA annual conference in Denver two years ago, and I know that although not an interpreter, she has tried to bridge that gap in Colorado organizing events to bring the professions closer. I know this because a few years back she invited me to do a presentation on conference interpretation before CTA.

Dear friends and colleagues. I appreciate all of our colleagues that are running, I am sure they are all honorable and capable professionals and human beings, but this time I invite you to keep our voice at the table by reelecting Cristina Helmerichs and Odile Legeay, and I invite you to cast your third vote for a great translator who has proven to be capable as an administrator and will no doubt be a friend to the interpreter community. Please cast these three votes.

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