The Couch

The Couch – The Girl in the Orange Suit

The Couch is a learning place, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. What do you do when you witness abuse on the job?


The incident happened a few years ago but it still haunts me. No, I am not asking for support, I just think that other colleagues may learn from a discussion on this subject. We all know that in the judiciary we are not advocates for our clients. We all know that, as interpreters, we do not have a voice. We also know that we can’t put our humanity, our sense of justice, on hold – and that is where the problem lies.

She was wearing an orange suit. I had never seen that before. Her hair was also orange. A millennial thing to do, I guess.

I later learned the orange suit is actually called a “suicide suit.” The girl was on suicide watch. Not even out of her twenties and thinking of ending it all.

She said she did not need interpretation. I just sat back, enjoying my time off. It was the county jail and that was supposed to have been my third assignment for the day, with the same lawyer.

the scales of justice surrounded by supportive wordsNow, this lawyer. He was nothing like what I was used to. He spoke down to his clients, called them names, was rude and crass. To another inmate on suicide watch who claimed to have been depressed over his divorce, the lawyer’s comment was “So you were depressed at the time because you were getting divorced. I wouldn’t be depressed I would be happy coz then I could go out and have all the p***y I wanted.

Back to the girl in the orange suit. She was facing 15 years, in tears, on suicide watch and the lawyer – HER lawyer – was berating her. Whenever she tried to explain her situation, he would shut her up with statements like “sure that’s a lie!” or “you got yourself here and now you’re going to rot here.

I reached my limit. Slammed my hand on the table, stood up, looked at the lawyer and said “This is over! I am reporting you!” He looked at the girl and said, “Yeah this is over. See if you can find a better lawyer,” as she was wailing.

I was told by the lawyers I spoke with, looking for direction, to report their colleague to the bar. Upon talking with some of the in-house interpreters, I discovered they had all rejected the assignment because they knew that lawyer and his style. The owner of the agency that had given me the assignment said she would back me if I decided to report him. Instead of going to the bar, I went directly to the court administration. I spilled my guts to them in a conference room with a secretary jotting down what I said. They listened. And then came the final words, “You know, he is a very good lawyer.

Had they not heard me? Really? I left.

That lawyer is still working there. The girl, I found out later, got a few years of probation. I also noticed that she had changed lawyers.


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11 Comments
  • Leo Perales
    Posted at 19:27h, 10 August Reply

    Very interesting situation. I’ve never faced this problem before, but as mentioned in the opening paragraph, we ARE human.

  • Chris Verduin
    Posted at 20:10h, 10 August Reply

    Guess I am not sure what a “good lawyer” is –
    I don’t care how “good” someone is at their job,
    that doesn’t give that person the right to treat
    other people like trash.

    • Liviu-Lee Roth
      Posted at 03:05h, 11 August Reply

      Honestly, I’d rather have an attorney that treats me like trash in private discussions and saves my life in the courtroom than a nice, polite, smiling and encouraging attorney who is not able to defend me efficiently.

      • Translator
        Posted at 08:35h, 16 August Reply

        Yes, I agree. I have same opinion like you.

  • Esther M Hermida
    Posted at 21:46h, 10 August Reply

    I had a similar experience with a PD so I reported him to his supervisor, not because he was rude, but because he was giving advice that should not be given, so I decided that it’d be better if his superior handled the legality of it.

    In your case, he wasn’t doing anything illegal nor unethical so it wouldn’t be right to report to the judge or to the bar. He was unpleasant, uncouth, and plain mean. We may be tempted to do more but it is up to the defendant to complain about his/her attorney, and she did. There are provisions that allows for substitution of counsel. Other than what you did, I don’t know what else you could’ve done.

    I’m interested in knowing what was his reaction when you said you were reporting him.

  • Liviu-Lee Roth
    Posted at 03:02h, 11 August Reply

    A different opinion

    Since in my lifetime I worked on both sides of the isle (as a prosecutor and defense attorney in my country, and court interpreter in the US) the fact you presented is not out of the ordinary and it should have not prompted your reaction.
    Moreover, you state some facts that are not 100% accurate.
    It is a wrong assumption that only inmates on suicidal watch wear orange jumpsuit! It is quite common for all kind of inmates to wear orange.
    As Esther pointed out,”In your case, he wasn’t doing anything illegal nor unethical so it wouldn’t be right to report to the judge or to the bar.” Exactly! It was none of your business how the attorney addressed his client. Maybe he was aware that she was lying and tried (in a rude way) to make her understand that if she is not honest with him, he cannot help her.
    You state hat she was facing 15 years. Any experienced court interpreter knows that both the prosecution and defense try to scare the defendant pointing that he/she is facing the MAXIMUM penalty for that crime, in order to convince the defendant to accept a guilty plea. Since you did’n know the details of the case, you went a little overboard. Best example, she was sentenced to probation!

    It is not the interpreter’s job to be a watchdog. If you heard the attorney encouraging her to commit a crime or suicide, if her life was in danger, you would’ve had the right to report it, otherwise ….

    Not to mention the fact that you were there more as a witness, not as an interpreter, since they did not use you.
    My 2 c
    Lee

  • Sylvia J. Andrade
    Posted at 04:46h, 11 August Reply

    It depends on what the situation is. Many years ago, I had to report physical abuse– beating the inmate’s head against the concrete floor– on the part of deputies. I reported it to the judge in chambers. He not only thanked me. He took action. He first asked if I had noticed any difference in the demeanor of the defendant between the morning and the afternoon. I told him the truth. In the morning the defendant was coherent. In the afternoon he seemed unable to understand or remember anything. The judge called for an ambulance, and later there was a case. against the deputies. This is the only time I have seen anything like this.

  • Genevieve N. Franklin
    Posted at 07:13h, 11 August Reply

    I appreciate your posting your story. Many of us have felt concerns similar to what you expressed, and have also been uncomfortable with staying within a tightly-circumscribed position under the aegis of “remaining neutral.”

    We, of all the parties in a case, are often in the best position to understand that the individuals we serve are all too often unlikely to truly grasp their rights – a primary one of which is that of being treated with dignity – let alone to feel capable of addressing their infringement.

    As a case in point: With regard to asking for a different attorney, it appears that it wasn’t the client who complained about her attorney, but the attorney who responded to your objection: “yeah, this is over, see if you can find a better lawyer.” Fortunately, the client did get another (perhaps better) lawyer, in large part because you objected to the attorney’s behavior and he responded by firing his client. But would that have happened but for what you did? (No doubt in retrospect you’ve thought of a somewhat less heated way you could have done so, but it certainly was effective!)

    Is the fact that we’re “not advocates” sufficient to condone inaction? I propose that there are almost always other avenues to conscientiously address situations like yours which neither require silent sufferance nor constitute crossing an ethical boundary.

    The attorneys you consulted gave sage advice that they may still be hoping you’ll follow. The fact that other interpreters turn down working with this attorney is a red flag that his behavior is affecting the provision of legal services to his clients. You say he’s still working, and imply that the issues continue. or you’d probably have been singing the praises of his transformation. You can still approach the Bar Association – let them decide whether it warrants any action.

    Here is what I think could apply:

    While the actions of the attorney may not have been “illegal,” whether they were unethical is a different matter. I believe they would fall under scrutiny under the American Bar Association’s “Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 8.4: Misconduct: Maintaining the Integrity of the Profession” or their equivalent in your state.

    Specifically, the comment regarding “…I could go out and get all the p***y, raises concerns of sexual harassment. While the law “doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious” given the unwillingness of your fellow interpreters to work with the attorney in question, it wouldn’t be surprising that this is one of the elements they regularly encounter, which could turn it into a sexual harassment issue. (https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm),

    Furthermore, as to both clients, depending on the motive behind the attorney’s behavior, subsection (g) of Rule 8.4 might apply. It states that an attorney “shall not engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.” (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/rule_8_4_misconduct.html)

    Whether these or other clauses apply will be the job of the Bar Association to determine.

    While defense attorneys, like law enforcement officers and prosecutors, have reasons of their own for using tactics designed to elicit a response from their clients/suspects/witnesses, for which reason we’re asked not to interfere, the ways will not always justify the means. A level of respect is expected of attorneys, and if they can’t intimidate witnesses, wouldn’t it follow that they can’t intimidate their own clients, particularly when said clients are mentally vulnerable?

    These are thoughts that the posting of your experience prompted me to share in return. I hope you’ll consider at least asking someone at the Bar. You might get as unsatisfactory a response as you did from court administration. But if it’s at least checked out, an investigation into the lawyer’s comportment could set off a change that will allow him to be “a very good lawyer” without being a very big bully. He could, in fact, become “a great lawyer.”

    Even if he doesn’t, he’ll be on notice that the people who work with him expect and will insist on respectful behavior. Either way, you’ll have done the best you can, and the haunting feeling may dissipate at last. Know that you are not alone.

    Genevieve

    p.s. Kudos to our agency for being willing to back you up!

  • Kathleen M. Morris
    Posted at 14:18h, 11 August Reply

    I face a similar situation in bond court, to which I am regulatly assigned.

    The assigned public defender is very skilled, and processes cases fast, so judges love him. But he is extremely rude and profane, yelling at clients in lockup whom he has barely met. His legal advice cannot be faulted, and is designed to get them out of custody as quickly as possible. But any questions or hesitation with his advice are met with yelling and derogatory comments to his clients.

    Though cordial to interpreters, we get yelled at, too, just because he has many clients to try to bond out, and is always in a big hurry to get thru his cases. He has never mastered the third person form of address. He will turn to the interpreter and demand, for example: “Doesn’t he see where his attitude has landed him?” or “Tell her that following another inmate’s advice is not smart…agree, Madam interpreter?”

    It is too late to teach this old dog new tricks. Our best hope will be when he finally retires!

  • Genevieve N. Franklin
    Posted at 18:12h, 11 August Reply

    Correction: I’d meant to write “Kudos to your (not our) agency…”

  • Max Goldston
    Posted at 23:13h, 11 August Reply

    The suit is like a banana outfit. The officers usually inform anyone before entering. Anyone who interprets for jails should know this. Therefore I’m sure the Interpreter is not lying about that. The point is she was on suicide watch. Regardless of anything, the lawyer should NOT have been berating her in such a delicate state. That is misconduct for sure and our code of ethics mandates that we report misconduct, which in my opinion is not done enough as interpreters are terrified of losing their jobs or contracts. The Interpreter called several lawyers first. They told him to report him to the bar. He did not do that. Did he go overboard? Hmm… It is misconduct, in my opinion, to berate and insult a person on suicide watch period. The Interpreter did the right thing.

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