Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

March 26, 2018 § 37 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A recurring theme among my court interpreter colleagues in the United States is the extreme difficulties they must endure when working under the Criminal Justice Act program (CJA). There are complaints about absurd paperwork procedures and unimaginable payment delays. Some colleagues’ invoices for professional services rendered under this program have been outstanding for over a year!

I worked with attorneys under the CJA program, but when the system changed about 18 months ago, and interpreters’ invoices had to go through the defense attorneys to get paid, and I heard some of the delayed payment stories from colleagues nationwide, I decided not to take CJA cases anymore.

For those of you who do not do federal court interpreting work in the United States, in 1964 the United States Congress enacted the Criminal Justice Act (18 U.S.C. § 3006A) to provide a system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel; and providing for payment of experts, investigators, or other needed defense services in federal criminal proceedings, including interpreters. Today, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, with the over 10,000 private “panel attorneys” who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.

CJA panel attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $132 in non-capital cases, and, in capital cases, a maximum hourly rate of $185. These rates include both attorney compensation and office overhead. In addition, there are case maximums that limit total panel attorney compensation for categories of representation (for example, $10,000 for felonies, $2,900 for misdemeanors, and $7,200 for appeals). These maximums may be exceeded when higher amounts are certified by the district judge, or circuit judge if the representation is at the court of appeals, as necessary to provide fair compensation and the chief judge of the circuit approves.  CJA attorney appointments are made by the Court on a rotating basis among members of the panel. Freelance federal court interpreters are paid with the same system, but with an additional step: Before their invoice goes to the judiciary, it must be reviewed and approved by the CJA panel attorney who requested the interpreter’s services. I guess interpreters are officers of the court of a lower tier, so they must be policed by the CJA panel attorney, apparently an officer of the court of a tier higher than the interpreter.

This process, not required when interpreters work directly for the federal courts interpreting court hearings or out-of-court interviews for public defenders or probation officers, created a burden on freelance interpreters who now devote a considerable, uncompensated time to the paperwork and its unavoidable eternal follow up process, that often takes many months and even years. Interpreters are billing for the time they worked as interpreters in a case, but that time represents but a fraction of the hours interpreters spend on paperwork, and follow up telephone calls, emails, and in-person visits to the courthouse, trying to discover the status of a payment for a service provided long before. This time goes uncompensated, and interpreters cannot work somewhere else, and generate income, while they are tied up in bureaucratic nonsense and begging for payment of rightfully earned professional fees.  For all these reasons, and to keep my health, sanity, and dignity, as soon as the system started I decided not to take any CJA panel cases, and I have taken none.

I suggest you do the same. Once you do it, you will be surprised at the money you will save just by rejecting these cases. Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for years, know that I am always suggesting diversification in the profession among freelancers so you can keep steady income, and a stream of interesting assignments instead of a boring monotonous routine. Dear colleagues, there are plenty of options even if court and legal interpreting is your thing and you do not want to step outside your field.

The most desirable practice would be civil cases with well-established high-profile law firms. They generally handle interesting cases, have clients who understand and appreciate your work as interpreter, and pay excellent, professional fees when you negotiate correctly. Smaller civil law firms and solo practitioners are also a good alternative.

Next, you have the criminal defense private attorneys. They have time to handle their cases and they usually retain you for the entire case. Here your interpreting services are well paid, and you are exposed to challenging, but interesting cases. It is rare to work in a case involving white collar crimes when you spend your time providing services to public defenders and CJA panel attorneys.

Foreign law firms are also a very good choice. Globalization has generated a big multinational litigation practice, and those top-notch attorneys coming from countries where they do not speak English may need the services of a local court interpreter team. Fascinating topics, including intellectual property, foreign trade, mining, hazardous materials, are common with these clients. Family Law practitioners from these countries are also looking for interpreting services in cases of divorce, child support, international child abduction, and others.

If you want to fill in the rest of your agenda with more court/legal work, you can also provide interpreting services to the Office of the United States Attorney in your jurisdiction. Witness preparation, proffers, transcriptions, and other services are required by the AUSA. An added benefit: They are not bound by the (every-day lower) federal fees, so you can negotiate a much better compensation for your professional services.

If you like working with the federal prosecutors, then you must offer your services to the United States Trustee Program (USTP) for their exams and interviews in federal bankruptcy court cases. This is another source of legal/court interpreter income that pays well when you negotiate your fee correctly.

Finally, you can still work with the federal public defender and, if you want to interpret hearings instead of interviews, negotiations, and depositions, you can interpret for the federal courts. You will only make the set half –a-day or full-day fee, and you will usually get the same type of cases, but you will stay away from the long, demeaning, and never-ending invoice procedures associated with CJA panel attorney cases. As a less desirable option, but in many ways better than dealing with the CJA system, you could always work at the state-court level.

Dear friends and colleagues, there are plenty of alternatives to CJA assignments, even within the court/legal field. I believe that if you all were to do what I did from the beginning, the CJA system would have no choice but to change and become more interpreter-friendly. I do not believe on “fantasyland solutions” such as talking to chief judges and court clerks; it was tried in some districts and they accomplished nothing. We cannot continue to lose income, health, and dignity backing up a system that proved ineffective. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us.

Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As I write this posting many of my friends, colleagues, and students are taking the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States: The federal court interpreter certification test. There are other court or legal exams given by government agencies at the federal and state level, and even the private sector has designed some interpreter exams, but no test is as demanding as the federal certification exam.  This week, just like one summer week every two years since the test has been in place, hundreds of Spanish-English interpreters: veterans, newly graduated, newcomers to the United States, and many others who previously passed the written test (at least one year earlier) are culminating months on study, practice and psychological preparation as they leave their hometown and travel to some of the largest cities in the country to have their skills  tested for some forty five minutes. During that period of time they will attempt to demonstrate that they are ready to interpret simultaneously, consecutively, and to sight-translate in the United States federal courts.

Within the profession it is very well known that this is not an easy exam; in fact, the passing rate of the attorney bar exam is substantially higher than the federal court interpreter certification test.  As someone who has gone through both exams I can even say that it is harder to get certified as an interpreter.  Traditionally there have been two systems to rate the examinee’s rendition: For many years the test was administered orally before a live jury of three certified interpreters who would rate the applicant’s performance.  Years later the system changed to a recorded test where the examinee would sit in a room with a proctor and record the rendition. Afterwards, the recording was reviewed by a team of three certified interpreters that would rate the performance based on the recorded material.  This year, for the first time ever, the renditions will be rated not by a jury of three certified interpreters, but by teams of two.

This change is as radical as the switch from a live oral test to a recorded one.  Generally in life we encounter all kinds of panels, juries, and other deliberation groups that consist of an odd number of members, and there is a reason for that configuration: You eliminate the possibility of a tie, you discard the scenarios where an even number of people can agree to one thing and at the same time another even number of people agree to another making a majority decision very difficult.  The odd number gives you unanimity or a tie breaker. In other words, it assures you that there will be a final decision. In the case of the federal court examination a final vote of 3-0 or 2-1.

The new system will no doubt result in many unanimous decisions of pass or fail, but there will be ties, and when the two raters cannot reach a consensus the exam will be sent to another panel who will rate it and decide.  The system seems fair, I am not so sure that it will be as quick and efficient as the 3-rater panel, but it seems like a reasonable solution to a tie.  I know many of the raters and as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority have rated exams in the past; many of these interpreter-raters have scored tests under the two previous systems and most of them have demonstrated to be fair and capable.  I do not believe that this will make the exam easier or more difficult, I don’t know if this will make it more efficient, and I don’t know yet if this will make it as fair as it has always been in the past. Everything indicates that it will be fine, but to know for sure we have to wait and see. I will be carefully watching the outcome as I am interested to see not only if more people fail under this new system, but also if more people pass. Big changes one way or the other could be a symptom that something is not as it was before.  I give them the benefit of the doubt and today I assume that everything will be fine; it is just that a jury of two looks a bit strange.  Please share your thoughts on the test and this new rating system.

Si ustedes interpretan para los juzgados federales más vale que lean esto.

December 7, 2012 § 4 Comments

Queridos colegas,

Una noche leyendo mi correo electrónico me enteré de ciertas cosas, en mi opinión preocupantes, que estaban sucediendo en ese momento en el estado de Colorado.   Resulta que los intérpretes que trabajan en ese distrito judicial federal prestando servicios a los abogados del panel, conocidos como “CJA” por las siglas que tiene ese programa en el idioma inglés, tuvieron muchas dificultades  para que les pagaran sus honorarios.  Aparentemente, hay algunas abogadas de este panel de Colorado, y al menos una juez en ese distrito, que no consideran que sea legítimo el pago de gastos y honorarios a los intérpretes que se desplazan a los centros de detención, por más lejos que estos se encuentren, a interpretar para los abogados CJA.  Una abogada se negó a autorizar el pago por las millas y el tiempo que le llevó a una colega intérprete trasladarse a un centro de detención.  La abogada argumentó que solo debería pagarse por el “tiempo de interpretación” y nada más.  Este asunto tan absurdo llegó a una audiencia ante una juez federal del distrito de Colorado y ¿Qué creen ustedes? ¡La juez estuvo de acuerdo con la abogada del panel!  Es más, esa juez trató de lograr que este criterio obtuso se convirtiera en regla general en todo el distrito judicial. Afortunadamente la crisis terminó con una decisión en que prevaleció la opinión de la mayoría de los jueces y en este momento los intérpretes reciben compensación por el tiempo de viaje.  Lo lamentable es que para alcanzar este “final feliz” pasaron meses y requirió de un gran esfuerzo por parte de nuestros colegas que afortunadamente terminaron por recibir el apoyo del presidente del juzgado y de la mayoría de los jueces vitalicios. No me quedó claro si la juez que inició toda la controversia finalmente entró en razón o simplemente perdió a la hora de contar los votos.

Ahora, debo explicar algo que yo sé por haber vivido un tiempo en Colorado.  Por muchísimos años los intérpretes judiciales de ese estado han trabajado bajo un sistema que les resuelve todo. No tienen que buscar trabajo ya que tanto el estado como el gobierno federal programan a sus intérpretes y les asignan días para interpretar. El resultado de esta costumbre ha sido que muchos de los colegas en Colorado no saben buscar clientes o negociar con ellos ya que están acostumbrados a depender del juzgado en este sistema de clientela medieval. De tal suerte que el juzgado, actuando como dueño de tienda de raya, determina el pago por los servicios de interpretación y los días en que alguien trabaja. Los intérpretes están tan acostumbrados al sistema que siempre están de acuerdo y siguen aceptando las condiciones que se les impongan en estos contratos de adhesión.  Obviamente el resultado es que Colorado tiene algunos de los intérpretes más mal pagados en todo el país.

Ese sistema tan viciado dejó de aplicarse en el distrito judicial federal a fines del año pasado y desde entonces, y hasta que los jueces votaron a favor del pago por el tiempo de viaje,  se había trabajado con el panel CJA bajo una política de negociación caso por caso. El resultado fue que en un lugar donde la gente no estaba acostumbrada a negociar sus honorarios, donde hay colegas (y me duele llamarlos colegas) que están prestando sus servicios por una miseria de pago, y hay otros que están tratando de cobrar como se debe, estos últimos enfrentan a un monstruo de dos cabezas: el cliente que quiere pagar poco y el intérprete miedoso que gustoso acepta las migajas..

No digo que debamos determinar aquí lo que hay que pagar a los intérpretes de ninguna parte, eso es cosa de ellos. Mi preocupación fundamental y mi única motivación para escribir este artículo tiene que ver con la idea de no pagar por el tiempo de preparación, de viaje, los gastos incidentales de la prestación del servicio profesional, y el tiempo que el intérprete deja de ganar dinero en otro trabajo debido a que está sentado en la cárcel con el abogado esperando que traigan al preso, o está jugándose la vida en una tormenta de nieve tratando de cumplir con su cita en un centro de detención, o está investigando terminología, etcétera.

Que quede bien claro que los intérpretes, al igual que todo aquel que presta servicios profesionales, incluyendo  los abogados, venden su tiempo. No pueden estar en dos lugares al mismo tiempo, y si se les contrata para un trabajo de dos horas, pero eso significa que debido a la distancia, o a la hora del día en que se va a prestar el servicio, no pueden trabajar en algo más ese día, o ese medio día, o sea, van a dejar de ganar dinero para poder satisfacer la necesidad de ese cliente que los necesita por dos horas, al igual que los abogados, esos intérpretes deben cobrar por su tiempo dedicado a un caso, deben ser remunerados por su tiempo desde el momento en que dejan su casa u oficina y hasta que regresen a la misma, deben ser remunerados por el tiempo que dediquen a la investigación y preparación de un trabajo, y deben ser reembolsados por los gastos que conlleva la prestación de sus servicios, millas viajadas, cuotas de puentes y carreteras, boletos de avión, hoteles, viáticos, etcétera.  La manera en que el intérprete decida cobrar esos gastos y honorarios es cosa suya: un honorario por hora contado desde que sale de la oficina hasta que regresa, cobrando únicamente por las horas de interpretación pero a un honorario más elevado que incluya los gastos y el viaje, a una tarifa por el día o medio día de trabajo…en  fin, eso es cosa de cada uno.

Si yo estuviera en una situación como la que sufrieron los intérpretes de Colorado, trataría de convencer a mis colegas para que no cedan ante la presión y cobren por aquello a lo que tienen derecho, además, yo simplemente me negaría a aceptar trabajo con esas abogadas cuenta-chiles del panel (que por cierto generalmente nunca se convierten en buenos clientes ya que rara vez tienen la pericia y conocimientos para tener clientes particulares que son los que pagan bien)  y antes de cada trabajo prepararía una carta de condiciones  que pediría que el abogado firmara, y si no la firma, simplemente no aceptaría el trabajo. Asimismo, jamás volvería a aceptar trabajo ante jueces como la que se menciona en este artículo, y que como dato curioso es hispana y “habla” español.  Hay que recordar que somos contratistas y como tales tenemos el derecho a aceptar o rechazar todo el trabajo que nos ofrezcan. Yo estoy convencido que cuando un abogado se encuentra sin opciones porque nadie quiera trabajar con él o ella, y cuando los jueces poquiteros no puedan celebrar una audiencia por falta de intérprete, sus actitudes cambian, y si no, al haber establecido mi política de no trabajar con ese tipo de clientes, por lo menos yo ya no tendría que preocuparme de lo que pase, ni tendría que perder mi tiempo en litigios y cartas tratando de convencer al olmo para que dé peras.  Ya les dije lo que yo haría en esa situación, ahora me encantaría escuchar sus opiniones que tal vez ayuden a nuestros colegas que en estos momentos enfrentan este tipo de circunstancias dondequiera que se encuentren.

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