Team Interpreting is a Matter of Due Process

“Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on national origin by, among other things, failing to provide meaningful access to individuals who are limited English proficient (LEP)” (lep.gov). In state courts, where Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 13166 are applicable—including all the Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance on the applicability and enforcement of the law—Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals have a right to quality language services by competent interpreters. Only by providing such services can the right to due process of LEP defendants in criminal matters be duly safeguarded. Due process means being informed of all charges against you in a language you can understand, being able to communicate with your legal counsel and assist in your own defense, and understanding everything that takes place during any court proceeding against you—not just testimony. In federal court, this mandate emanates from the Court Interpreters Act (28 U.S.C. 1827), which created a certification process for interpreters so defendants could understand all proceedings against them.

These legislative initiatives did not happen in a vacuum. The federal law that mandated the certification of interpreters back in 1978 came about as an indirect result of the case of U.S. Ex Rel Negron v. State of N.Y.  [434 F.2d at 389] in which the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that a “defendant who spoke no English, and [sat] in total incomprehension as the trial proceeded, was not sufficiently ‘present’ to satisfy the dictates of the Sixth Amendment.” Furthermore, the Negrón court noted that the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment was made applicable to the states, via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Before the Negrón case, in 1973 the First Circuit in the case of U.S. v. Carrion [488 F.2d 12 (1st Cir. 1973)] had also ruled thatwhenever put on notice that there may be some significant language difficulty, the court should make such a determination of need [for an interpreter].” In a 1974 case, State v. Natividad [111 Ariz. 191, 194, 526 P.2d 730, 733 (1974)] the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that “A defendant’s inability to spontaneously understand testimony being given would undoubtedly limit his attorney’s effectiveness, especially on cross-examination. It would be as though a defendant were forced to observe the proceedings from a soundproof booth or seated out of hearing at the rear of the courtroom, being able to observe but not comprehend the criminal processes whereby the state had put his freedom in jeopardy. Such a trial comes close to being an invective against an insensible object, possibly infringing upon the accused’s basic ‘right to be present in the courtroom at every stage of his trial’.” [Cites omitted. Emphasis added.]

Subsequent to the Court Interpreters Act, we have two other interesting cases that have a direct bearing on the LEP defendant’s right to an interpreter in order to protect due-process rights. In the 1993 case of U.S. v. Mosquera [816 F. Supp. at 174-76],  a “district court ordered the government to turn over a copy of the indictment translated into Spanish and additionally ordered that ‘[a]ll documents, except motion papers and original evidence’ be translated.” A very enlightened judge in that case further quoted the defense attorney concerning the “difficulties encountered by non-English speaking defendants facing our judicial system” who addressed how “[t]he cultural differences are . . . dramatic between what we monolithically construe as our Anglo-Saxon or Judeo-Christian or American system, [and foreign cultures]…”

Then, in 2000, the Court ruled in United States v. Febus, 218 F.3d 784, 791 (7 Cir. 2000), that “[o]ne of the purposes of the [Court Interpreters Act] is ‘to ensure that the defendant can comprehend the proceedings and communicate effectively with counsel’ through the appointment of an interpreter’.”

The right to an interpreter is not just an empty mandate to assign some warm body who may or may not be able to provide accurate and complete interpretations of everything an LEP defendant is entitled to understand. The right to an interpreter is a fundamental constitutional right emanating from the Fifth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments of the U.S. and state constitutions with similar provisions. If the interpreter is not competent, an LEP’s rights are not protected. If the interpreter starts to make mistakes because of mental fatigue, the defendant’s right to due process are no longer protected. We know from the academic research and literature in the field that mental fatigue for interpreters starts to set in somewhere between forty-five minutes and two hours of simultaneous interpreting, depending on the difficulty posed by the source-language speakers, their speed, volume, the technical versus non-technical contents of their discourse, and the acoustic conditions in the courtroom or availability of equipment so the interpreter can hear all speakers. The pilot study by Barbara Moser-Mercer et al in 1998 “include[s] a recommendation that simultaneous interpreters not work alone for longer than approximately 40 minutes for a single speech or short meeting and that they take turns roughly every 30 minutes when working all day meetings.”

A team of interpreters is therefore intended to protect the target-language listener from the human failure that will inevitably set in after an interpreter has been working non-stop for an extended period of time. Once mental fatigue sets in, interpreters lose the capacity to self-monitor and, therefore, to know whether or not they are being accurate. (See Winter 1997 Proteus.) This jeopardizes the LEP defendant’s due-process rights. Just like the appointment of a competent interpreter for an LEP defendant is a matter of due process, so is having a team of interpreters during prolonged proceedings to prevent interpreting error due to mental fatigue. Meaningful access is not a matter of appointing a single interpreter who will not be able to fulfil the task of full and accurate renditions for the LEP defendant after a certain period of time working alone. Working in teams for prolonged proceedings is the only way an LEP defendant can have meaningful access as required by law and the protection of his or her Constitutional due-process rights.


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: jpalma@najit.org

Main photo by CALI from flickr. Body photo by Phillip Capper from flickr

11 thoughts on “Team Interpreting is a Matter of Due Process”

  1. Heidi Cazes says:

    This is so important to remember!!
    Team interpreting is not a luxury or a whim!
    When hired, we should speak up, as if taking it for granted, not afraid to lose the assigngment:
    “Do you already know who my partner will be?” Is a good phrase to use, or something like that…
    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thanks, Heidi. There are still so many interpreters struggling to get a second interpreter, usually for “budgetary” reasons, I thought maybe a different (legal) perspective could help their case. I like your suggestion to make it clear you will need a teammate. Don’t offer a choice, make it a “given”.

  2. Sarah Pfefferle says:

    Dear Janis, this article with its sequence of argument, and research and legal references give a useful tool to share with inquisitive judges who love to understand, and to hand to court clerks who at times seem impatient with the need for an interpreter. Thank you so much for arming us with information in one spot.
    Regards.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Sarah! That was exactly the idea behind this piece. I really hope it yields the desired results.

      1. P. Ward says:

        Thank you for this important reminder.

        1. JANIS PALMA says:

          You are very welcome!

  3. Jason K. says:

    Janis,

    Bravo! You’ve managed to bring together in one brief article many of the most relevant court decisions regarding language access. This will be a good reference for court interpreters, interpreter trainers, and anyone doing client education. I applaud you on your scholarship.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you so much, Jason! I can’t say it enough: thank you!

  4. I do agree with Jason here! Thanks so much for your research in the area as well as the concentration of scholarship!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      I am so very happy this work can translate into something useful and helpful for my coleagues. Thank you, Nick!

  5. Janis,
    Thanks for this thourough information. We have to continuously educate our clients on these issues and it is great to know the history and scientific basis behind team interpreting inside and outside the courtroom.

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