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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
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,"