November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment
I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.
I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.
That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:
The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.
With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.
We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life. A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.
Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.
But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.
The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.
Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?
The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive. I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.
The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.
Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.
January 15, 2018 § 4 Comments
Most professional, dedicated, court interpreters in Europe and the United States are constantly fighting against the establishment: government authorities who want to dodge the responsibility of administering justice to all, regardless of the language they speak, by procuring a warm body next to the litigant in the courtroom regardless of the skill and knowledge of the individual; ignorant and egotistical judges who believe they know everything about language access and interpreting, and make absurd decisions, when they know less about our profession than anyone else in the room; bilingual lawyers who cannot tell the difference between being a professional interpreter and speaking a second language with limited proficiency; monolingual attorneys who believe interpreting is easy and interpreters are only an intransigent bunch demanding nonsensical work conditions (like team interpreting) and get paid for what they do more than they deserve; and of course, greedy unscrupulous agencies who spend most of their time trying to figure out two things: How to pay interpreters less, and how to sell a mediocre paraprofessional low fee foreign-language speaker to their clients.
There are exceptions everywhere and in some latitudes court interpreting can be performed at a high quality level (even though, in my opinion, most court interpreters are still getting paid very little compared to the other actors in a court proceeding such as attorneys, expert witnesses, and judges), but there are no places, that I know of, at least in the United States, where you can find the support, understanding, and respect I found in Mexico during their transition from written court proceedings to oral trials where interpreters play a more relevant role they ever did under the old system.
During the last two years I have attended many conferences, meetings, one-on-one interviews, where I have talked to the parties invested in the system about the work court interpreters do, the need for some quality control process such as an accreditation or certification of the professional court interpreter, the non-negotiable principle that interpreters must make a professional fee that will let them have the lifestyle they may choose and will retain them as practitioners of the interpreting profession, and the work conditions for the professional court interpreter to provide the expected service. I have had many memorable experiences, and I will share with you those that I consider essential turning points in the design of the court interpreting profession in Mexico.
For the past two years I have attended the “Taller de profesionalización de los servicios de interpretación de Lengua de Señas Mexicana en el ámbito jurídico” (Professionalization of Mexican Sign Language legal interpreting services workshop), the brain child of Mexico’s federal judge Honorable María del Carmen Carreón, who has done more for the court interpreting profession than any person I know who is not an interpreter. Judge Carreón and her team organized these workshops that bring together Mexican Sign Language interpreters from all over the Mexican Republic, the most influential Sign Language Interpreter professional associations in the country, legal and language scholars, attorneys from all fields, and judges from all levels and jurisdictions: from Federal Supreme Court Justices and State Supreme Court Justices, to federal and state criminal, civil, family, administrative, and electoral judges.
These participants meet for three days at different locations: courthouses and universities, to learn from each other, and exchange ideas on how to make it easier for court interpreters so they can fulfill their role in the administration of justice to all individuals, regardless of the language they speak. The new court interpreting manual I recently published results from this extraordinary professional relationship that has developed among my co-authors: Judge Carreón and Daniel Maya, president of the largest professional association of Sign Language interpreters in Mexico, and me (Manual del Intérprete Judicial en México, Carreón, Rosado, Maya. Editorial Tirant Lo Blanch).
During these trips, I have witnessed the willingness of all parties to learn the new system together, I heard often about the commitment to a good professional fee for those interpreters who get a court interpreter patent as a “perito” (equivalent to a certification or accreditation in other countries), and I saw a system with a new culture of cooperation where interpreters getting materials and full access to a case will be the rule and not the exception. I saw how all actors understand the need for team interpreting without even questioning the reasons behind this universally accepted policy. I heard judges telling interpreters to come to them with their suggestions and requests, and lawyers who want to learn how to work with the interpreter. Our manual has been presented before many institutions, including courthouses and attorneys’ forums to standing room only.
It was at one workshop, and through Judge Carreón, that I met Mexico City Civil Court Judge Eliseo Juan Hernández Villaverde and Mexico City Family Court Judge Teófilo Abdo Kuri. Both judges graciously invited me to their courtrooms so I could observe how the oral proceedings are being carried under the new legislation, and to have a dialogue on court interpreters’ best practices so our Mexican colleagues can provide their service under close to ideal conditions.
At their respective courtrooms I met their staff and I saw how everyone was treated with dignity and respect. After fruitful talks with both judges, I observed the proceedings, and afterwards met with the judges to physically suggest changes to the courtroom to make it more “interpreter-friendly” to both: sign and spoken language interpreters. To my surprise, these suggestions were welcomed immediately, and Judge Hernández Villaverde rearranged the courtroom right on the spot, in my presence, to make sure that everything was as suggested. Finally, it was agreed that court interpreters and those studying interpreting will have regular visits to their courtrooms where they will observe proceedings and after the hearing can ask questions to the judges.
A major factor in the success that Mexico is enjoying, is due to the absence of irresponsible interpreting agencies that hire a high school level “coordinator” to recruit paraprofessionals and convince them to work for a fee (they call rate) that will seem good to them (compared to their minimum wage job prior to becoming an “interpreter”) but would be insulting and disrespectful to any professional interpreter charging the professional fees that their service commands.
There are some in Mexico, judges, attorneys, and interpreters, who are not fully on board, but they are not stopping the new culture. They are not killing the excitement and willingness of all parties to grow professionally in the new legal system the country has adopted. There are many things to do, but an environment fosters the achievement of those goals.
I hope that me sharing the situation of the court interpreting profession in Mexico can inspire many of us in other countries and legal systems, and teach us to keep fighting for what is right without ever giving up in our dealings with the judiciary, and to never give in to the insulting conditions offered by those who want to see us as an “industry” instead of a profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your goals and achievements within your courthouses or hospitals (for healthcare interpreters).
February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States. All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.
As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system. The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight. Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.
Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.
This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.
It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.
The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:
During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.
Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases. Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.
This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.
When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.
They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!
The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.
This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.
As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.
This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.
The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.
Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada. It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available. Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.
The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.
Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality. The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.
I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.
I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:
First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor. Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.
Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.
I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.
True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.
August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments
This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago. One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time. We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment. After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.
We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for. The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility. The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place. I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification. It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.
Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left. Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail. I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal. I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.