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Public Statements

Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I rise today, with Senator Kennedy, Senator Durbin, and Senator Cardin to introduce the state Court Interpreter Grant Program Act of 2009. 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, 20 percent of the population over age five speaks a language other than English at home. In 2000, the number of people in this country who spoke English less than ``very well'' was more than 21 million, approaching twice what the number was 10 years earlier. Illinois had more than 1 million. Texas had nearly 2.7 million. California had more than 6.2 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 February 2007 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 $15 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. 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.

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, 5 years later, it has certified 48 interpreters. Most of those are certified in Spanish, where the greatest need exists. However, the State also has interpreters certified in sign language and German. The list of provisional interpreters--those who have received training and passed written tests--is much longer and includes individuals trained in Russian, Hmong, Korean, and other languages. All of this progress in only 5 years, and with only $250,000 of Federal assistance.

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.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.

There geing no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD


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