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August 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


The Federal Courts and Communications Disabilities

There's more than one way to communicate a Miranda warning, or a judge's questions or jury instructions. They can be spoken, written, or—for people with communications disabilities—they can be delivered through sign language interpreters (SLI) or assistive listening devices (ALDs). Since 1996, when the Administrative Office began to track the types of interpreter services offered, federal courts have provided SLIs or ALDs in over 420 events in federal courts.

Judicial Conference policy requires that courts provide, at Judiciary expense, "sign language interpreters or other appropriate auxiliary aids and services to participants in federal court proceedings who are deaf, hearing-impaired, or who have other communications disabilities."

"It is Judicial Conference policy to provide reasonable access for anyone with a disability," said Judge Julie Robinson (D. Kan.), a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management. "But access may be most critical for those individuals with communications disabilities. After all, the courtroom is all about communication. We want everyone to be able to fully participate in the adjudicative process."

Policy also requires that each court identify a specific office or individual to serve as the contact point for anyone requesting aids or services. Over the last five years, SLIs have interpreted for participants in grand jury sessions, voir dire, initial hearings, trials, bankruptcy hearings, settlement conferences, and naturalization ceremonies—in short, for every federal court proceeding where citizens may be called for duty or participate as litigants or defendants, or occasionally as attorneys. For example, Court Services Supervisor Rose Donaghue in the District of New Jersey provides court proceedings in real time to an attorney who is hearing impaired. A deaf state government attorney who frequently appears in the court is provided with an SLI.

Donna Gregory, chief deputy clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, recently arranged sign language interpreting for a deaf man selected for grand jury service.

"After he received his jury summons, he contacted us using the TTY (telecommunications device for the deaf) service to advise us he would need a sign language interpreter. We also communicate with him by e-mail," said Gregory. The grand jury meets every other week, and because it's very taxing to sign, two sign language interpreters are used per session. The interpreters are sworn-in with the rest of the jurors.

Sign language interpreters may be certified in Legal Sign. This Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC:L) signifies the successful completion of both a legal written exam and a legal performance test developed by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Candidates also must document eligibility through education, training and experience.

"Sign language interpreters won't normally go into a courtroom until they have 10 years of experience with a general certification and legal interpreter training," said Carla Mathers, an attorney and former legal SLI. According to Mathers, there are only 140 SC:L-certified sign language interpreters in the country.

Sign language is not a word-for-word equivalent for the spoken word. Interpreters must convey concepts and they often use comparative forms.

"On occasion," said Mathers, "this may give attorneys pause, because they may think the interpreter is giving legal advice." Even something as simple as a greeting may be misinterpreted. "In the deaf community," Mathers said, "greetings are physical, even if you don't know each other well. Some attorneys might assume you know each other andthat there is a conflict of interest.”

Unlike most spoken language interpreters, sign language interpreters also must be familiar with cases. "For example," said Mathers,"if I needed to refer to a bag of cocaine, I would need to know its size in order to use the right size and shape specifiers in American Sign Language." Interpreters also follow their juror-clients into deliberations. "To see the process all the way through," said Mathers, "is amazing, but it's very hard. Jury deliberations require two interpreters and sometimes you're there all night."

In addition to sign language interpreters, most courts also make ALDs available. For example, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana has ALDs in all the courtrooms and grand jury rooms. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York keeps a few dozen ALDs on hand all the time. "We have one judge who is hard of hearing who wears an ALD in the courtroom, and he is not shy about offering ALDs to anyone having difficulty hearing," said Jeanne Spampata, chief deputy clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. The district, which encompasses a large deaf population in the Rochester, New York area, has an access coordinator in each division. The district also routinely uses sign language interpreters for every naturalization ceremony and any type of public ceremony.

Accommodating some interpreting needs can be challenging. For Donaghue in New Jersey, it was a deaf woman who did not understand sign language and, it was suspected, could not read. “We found an interpreter who lip-reads poorly enunciated words—it's actually a specialty field,” said Donaghue. In the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Rebeca Calderon, manager of interpreter services, recently went in search of a Mexican Sign Language interpreter for a material witness in a criminal case. American Sign Language (ASL) is normally used for English-speaking individuals. According to Mathers, the need for interpreters who know Mexican Sign Language is more common in the border states and in inner cities where language issues are complex. Calderon eventually found an interpreter, "after spending a lot of time on the phone," she said.