Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:  Herb Kohl
Date: July 10, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, today I introduce the State Court Interpreter Grant Program Act of 2012. This legislation would create a modest grant program to provide much needed financial assistance to States for developing and implementing effective State court interpreter programs. This would help to ensure fair trials for individuals with limited English proficiency.

States are already legally required, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to court proceedings for individuals with limited English proficiency. Unfortunately, however, court interpreting services vary greatly by State. Some States have highly developed programs. Others are trying to get programs up and running, but lack adequate funds. Still others have no interpreter certification program at all. It is critical that we protect the constitutional right to a fair trial by adequately funding State court interpreter programs.

Our States are finding themselves in an impossible position. Qualified interpreters are in short supply because it is difficult to find individuals who are both bilingual and well-versed in legal terminology. The skills required of a court interpreter differ significantly from those required of other interpreters or translators. Legal English is a highly particularized area of the language and requires special training. Although anyone with fluency in a foreign language could attempt to translate a court proceeding, the best interpreters are those that have been tested and certified as official court interpreters.

Making the problem worse, States continue to fall further behind as the number of Americans with limited English proficiency and therefore the demand for court interpreter services continues to grow. According to the most recent Census data, 21 percent of the population over age five speaks a language other than English at home. In 2010, the number of people in this country who spoke English less than ``very well'' was more than 25 million, compared to 23 million in 2005. In 2010, New York had almost 2.5 million. Texas had nearly 3.4 million. California had almost 6.9 million.

The shortage of qualified interpreters has become a national problem, and it has serious consequences. In Pennsylvania, a committee established by the state Supreme Court called the State's interpreter program ``backward,'' and said that the lack of qualified interpreters ``undermines the ability of the ..... court system to determine facts accurately and to dispense justice fairly.'' When interpreters are unqualified, or untrained, mistakes are made. The result is that the fundamental right to due process is too often lost in translation, and because the lawyers and judges are not interpreters, these mistakes often go unnoticed.

Some of the stories associated with this problem are simply unbelievable. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a husband accused of abusing his wife was asked to translate as his wife testified in court. In Ohio, a woman was wrongly placed on suicide watch after an unqualified interpreter mistranslated her words. In testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Justice Kennedy described a particularly alarming situation where bilingual jurors can understand what the witness is saying and then interrupt the proceeding when an interpreter has not accurately represented the witness' testimony. Justice Kennedy agreed that the lack of qualified court interpreters poses a significant threat to our judicial system, and emphasized the importance of addressing the issue.

This legislation does just that by authorizing $10 million per year, over 5 years, for a State Court Interpreter Grant Program. The bill does not merely send Federal dollars to States to pay for court interpreters. It will provide much needed ``seed money'' for States to start or bolster their court interpreter programs to recruit, train, test, and certify court interpreters. Those States that apply would be eligible for a $100,000 base grant allotment. In addition, $5 million would be set aside for States that demonstrate extraordinary need, determined by the percentage of persons in that State over the age of 5 who speak a language other than English at home and who identify as speaking English less than very well. This legislation also directs the Department of Justice to prioritize funding for any State that does not have and has not begun to develop a qualified court interpreter program. In this way, the States most in need will benefit from the grant program.

Some will undoubtedly question whether this modest amount can make a difference. It can, and my home State of Wisconsin is a perfect example of that. When Wisconsin's court interpreter program got off the ground in 2004, using State money and a $250,000 Federal grant, certified interpreters were scarce. Now, 8 years later, the court's public registry of interpreters lists 114 certified interpreters. Most of these are certified in Spanish, where the greatest need exists. However, the State also has interpreters certified in sign language, French and German. The list of qualified interpreters who have received training and attained requisite scores on an oral assessment includes 56 individuals who speak Russian, Hmong, Korean, Bulgarian, Polish and many other languages. All of this progress in only 8 years, and with only $250,000 of Federal assistance.

This bill includes cost saving measures to ensure funding is spent wisely. For example, it provides for remote interpretation services to facilitate certified court interpretations when costs prohibit in-person interpretations. These services help cover the cost of interpreter transportation fees. Additionally, the bill encourages States to share successful cost saving programs with other States and defines an effective court interpreter program as one that ``efficiently uses funding to create substantial cost savings.'' To make certain grants are being used in the most resourceful manner, the Department of Justice is required to submit an annual report to Congress detailing where and how the funding was spent.

This legislation has the strong support of State court administrators and state Supreme Court justices around the country. Our States are facing this difficult challenge, and Federal law requires them to meet it. Despite their noble efforts, many of them have been unable to keep up with the demand. It is time we lend them a helping hand. This is an access issue, and no one should be denied justice or access to our courts merely because of a language barrier. I strongly urge my colleagues to support this critical legislation.

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