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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - S. 1733

Location: Washington, DC


By Mr. KOHL (for himself and Mr. KENNEDY):

S. 1733. A bill to authorize the Attorney General to award grants to States to develop and implement State court interpreter programs; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the State Court Interpreters Grant Program Act of 2003. This bill would create a modest Federal grant program to support the State court interpreter services. Currently, court interpreting services vary greatly by State—some States have highly developed programs, others are trying to get programs running but lack adequate funds, and still others have no program at all. This inconsistency creates the potential for poorly translated court proceedings, or court proceedings that are not translated at all. It is critical that we protect the constitutional right to a fair trial by funding State court interpreter programs.

According to the 2000 Census, 18 percent of the population over age five speaks a language other than English at home. As these individuals with limited English proficiency come into the court system to seek redress or to defend themselves against allegations of civil or criminal wrongdoing, it is critical to the fair administration of justice that they be able to understand their court proceedings.

At the Federal level, court interpreting services are provided as needed by trained and certified interpreters. Similarly, some
States have robust and effective court interpreter programs in their State courts. These States recruit, train, test and certify individuals in all necessary languages. However, many States have limited programs which may test and certify interpreters for only one language. Such States may have only a small number of interpreters certified to interpret courtroom proceedings. Still other States have no program at all. We have heard horror stories of "amateur" interpreters attempting to translate courtroom events. For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports: "In one juvenile court, a juvenile defendant had to interpret for his parents. In a Monroe County [Pennsylvania] court, a member of an anti-domestic violence group was asked to interpret for an alleged victim, despite having a clear bias."

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.

A lack of qualified interpreters can create serious problems in the justice system. For example, a poorly interpreted trial may be appealed on the grounds that justice was not administered fairly. Those appeals clog up the courts. In addition, where there are inadequate resources available, interpreters may not be able to keep up with the caseload and trials may be delayed unreasonably and in violation of a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

This is not just a State issue. First and foremost, the right to a fair trial is a federally protected right under the Constitution.
The Federal Government therefore has a role to play in ensuring that State courts are holding fair trials. In addition, State budget crises have reduced the ability of the courts to pay for interpreter services. At the same time, requests for interpreter services have skyrocketed over the past several years all around the country. Although Spanish is by far the most requested language to be translated in courtrooms, court officials report regular or occasional need for Russian, German, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Afghani, Armenian, Punjabi, Hindi, Arabic, Somali, Polish and many other languages. The coincidence of budget cuts and increased demand threatens federally-guaranteed due process and justifies Federal assistance.

This legislation addresses this problem by authorizing $15 million for each of the next five fiscal years for a grant program to the States. 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. The remainder of the money would be distributed on a formula basis determined by the percentage of persons in that State over the age of five who speak a language other than English at home.

Support for this legislation comes from State court administrators across the country. In fact, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators this summer adopted a resolution urging Congress to establish a national program to assist State courts in providing court interpreters services.

I hope my colleagues will help the court systems in their States to provide critical court interpreting services to their constituents.

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