Friday, November 30, 2007

Language barrier leads to unlicensed advice when interpreters act as lay lawyers

Constitutional question raised

In its November 22 issue, the Nashville Scene reported here that certain court interpreters are giving more than just translations to non-English-speaking defendants in Davidson County Sessions Court. According to the Scene, in some cases they are practicing law without a license and in the process giving harmful legal advice. Local attorney Sean Lewis filed a case raising Constitutional concerns, in which it was alleged that the interpreter told a defendant to plead guilty.

Attorney Jerry Gonzalez wrote this letter to the editor in the next issue citing other examples of the behavior, the Supreme Court rule against it, and what response he has been given when bringing it to judges' attention.

Deputy public defender Laura Dykes is quoted by the Scene as saying, "We do have some translators who like to tell people what the law is":
According to the filing, Quinteros arrived in court the next day and was appointed a public defender and interpreter. Unfortunately, when it came time for Quinteros to register his plea, his lawyer “sat on a bench in the courtroom while [Quinteros] was advised by the interpreter to plead guilty.”

Also, Quinteros was not informed that he “had the option of pleading ‘not guilty’ ” and that he “would not have pleaded guilty had he known he had such an option.”

In another strange twist, the filing says the courtroom was closed to the English-speaking public. Immigration attorneys say closing a courtroom to English speakers is highly irregular.

Quinteros’ new, privately hired attorney, Sean Lewis, filed the petition last month claiming his client had been denied his constitutional rights during the hearing. Lewis refused comment on the matter, which is in the process of being scheduled for a hearing before a judge.


[Deputy public defender] Dykes was generally complimentary of the work that courthouse translators do. “They really are just trying to help the lawyers move cases,” she says. She also points out that translators sometimes overstep their bounds. “We do have some translators who like to tell people what the law is,” Dykes says. “They think that they’re helping.”
Excerpts from Attorney Gonzalez's letter:
The lack of professionalism is still far too prevalent in my experience, which includes watching interpreters render legal advice in the hallway, speak with parties aside from their interpreter duties, and act more like courtroom deputies than interpreters (see also the ethical rule prohibiting even the appearance of bias). I wrote a General Sessions judge once about a person presenting himself as a “certified” interpreter when, in fact, he had failed even the English language exam repeatedly and was not certified by the Administrative Office of the Courts. I never received a response, and although that interpreter no longer interprets in General Sessions courts as far as I am aware, he apparently was promoted and now works at the Criminal Court level as a staff member.

Related stories:
10.10.06: City Paper praises court interpreter role
12.23.03: Courts may worsen interpreter shortage with new pay ceiling
09.13.07: Ceja Enterprises enjoined from offering legal services
03.01.07: Legal bureaucracies and lawyer impersonators trap ordinary expatriates
06.13.05: Lawyer impersonators prey on Hispanic consumers
03.29.05: Notario abuse law unenforced
07.15.04: Nashville Scene profiles Jerry Gonzalez

Photo by Brooke Novak. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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