Interpreters fighting for court language services

Pictured from left to right: Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr, CFI Region 2 Representative Anabelle Garay, CFI Region 3 Representative Brandon Scovill, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, CFI President Michael Ferreira, CFI legislative committee member Mary Lou Aranguren and director of governmental affairs Cory Jasperson.

Guild-represented interpreters are leading the push to expand interpreter services and enhance language access in California courts.

The California Federation of Interpreters, part of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, has detailed hundreds of instances of witnesses, defendants and other court users going without quality language services.

“Our members around the state routinely witness Californians standing before judges with no ability to effectively understand their own legal proceedings or communicate with their counsel or otherwise get their needs addressed,” CFI President Michael Ferreira told the Judicial Council, the policymaking body for state courts.

CFI represents nearly 1,000 court interpreters in California who collectively are fluent in more than 50 languages. Leaders and staff have been speaking before the Judicial Council, and even met with the state’s chief justice about the needs of court users with limited English proficiency.

The union is especially troubled that some courts have stopped providing qualified interpreters for domestic violence matters, family court mediations and other civil court proceedings.

CFI members say some court cases are continued because no interpreter is provided, while other cases proceed without language services, or with attorneys, mediator and bailiffs acting as interpreters.

“This results in inefficiencies, delays, misunderstandings and ultimately miscarriages of justice,” field representative Brandon Scovill told the Judicial Council.

The problem isn’t unique to California. Interpreters in Chicago area courts describe such instances as a prosecutor interpreting for a defendant, judges using anyone in the audience to interpret, and the court bringing in a parking lot attendant to interpret in Bulgarian, said Grace Catania, interpreter unit chair of the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

In California, misinformation over available funding to pay for interpreters has led some courts to deny interpreters in everything from traffic court to domestic violence and civil proceedings, even when staff interpreters were available to interpret. Courts often claim they’re unsure state money will reimburse them for interpreters; however reserves in the state interpreter budget have grown over time to $8 million.

In November, members of the CFI legislative committee met with California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye about the urgent need to clarify that funds are available. She indicated she would work with CFI to do so.

The Judicial Council has been considering whether to use the reserve funds for court programs that are unrelated to language access.

CFI leaders have made it clear that shifting the funds would deprive many people from access to justice, while violating the federal civil rights requirements state courts must meet.

In an August 2010 letter, the U.S. Department of Justice clarified that state courts must provide oral interpretation, written translation and other language assistance services in all proceedings and court operations. It made no distinction between civil or criminal court proceedings or hearings ancillary to them. Fiscal pressure does not exempt courts from complying with those civil rights requirements, according to the DOJ.

Outside of California, NewsGuild-represented interpreters include Cook County court interpreters in Chicago and Hennepin County Medical Center interpreters in Minnesota.

Janelle Hartman of The Newspaper Guild contributed to this article.


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    Michael Applegate

    Pacific Media Workers Executive Officer

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