crystal ball by the beach resting on a piece of driftwood

Understanding the AO

Seal of the Administrative Office of the US Courts

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) is an administrative agency that is the central support entity for the judicial branch providing a wide range of administrative, legal, financial, management, program, and information technology services to the federal courts.

When I became a federally-certified interpreter, I was under the mistaken impression that I had now fallen under the protection of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) for all matters having to do with my new status. This was a misconception shared by many of my colleagues back then and still is now. There is an expectation, spoken or unspoken, for the AO to come to our rescue, assuage all our woes, and deliver us from all evil as it pertains to our federally-certified interpreter status.

During my first years as a member of this new professional group created as a direct result of the certification process for interpreters in the federal courts system, I thought the people in Washington were just not paying attention to all the irregularities being reported: mainly federal courts that were not contracting the certified interpreters created by the AO, either because they were favoring non-certified and “cheaper” interpreters, or just not appointing an interpreter at all for their non-English-speaking defendants. Then there was the cry for higher rates that federally-certified interpreters raised from time to time, usually ignored as well.

The Limits of the Power

The reality is that the AO is not some sort of “central command” for the U.S. courts, and federal judges don’t answer to the AO. In any event, they would answer to the court of appeals. Each district court contracts interpreters as needed, and the AO has very little say in the matter, if any. On the other hand, some district courts’ staff in charge of contracting interpreters don’t seem to know that the funding for these services comes directly from D.C. and, therefore, contracting “cheaper”—i.e., non-certified—versus “more expensive”—i.e., certified—interpreters has no real impact on their local courts’ budgets.

As the officer in charge of the interpreters program at the AO shifted from someone with no knowledge whatsoever of foreign languages—never mind what interpreters did in court—, to someone with at least a background in languages and then, ten years ago, to someone who was not only a federally-certified interpreter but also had decades of experience in the field, the lines of communication opened, information flowed, understanding became a two-way street, and… well, the realization sunk in: the AO is a support agency for the federal courts, not the interpreters working in those courts!

Established in 1939, the Administrative Office is the administrative arm of the federal Judiciary devoted to serving the courts in fulfilling the federal judicial system’s critical mission, which is providing justice to the citizens of this country. The agency provides service to the federal courts in three essential areas: administrative support, program management, and policy development. It is charged with implementing the policies of the Judicial Conference of the United States and supporting the network of Conference committees.

The operative words here being: The agency provides service to the federal courts. The AO exists for the benefit of the courts, not the people who serve the courts, and that includes interpreters.

Freedom through Knowledge

As harsh as that may sound, this knowledge should be helpful to the extent that we do not waste time and energy seeking remedies from a source that is not structured to provide such remedies. It behooves us to know what the AO can and cannot do for us. For example, they can assist with information about courtroom technology and even fund the technology, but they cannot impose such technology on an individual court. The Court Interpreting Program tracks and recommends rate increases for interpreters, but the final decision is out of their hands. They have a Court Interpreters Advisory Group that we could, in theory, approach with issues that concern our professional group, but they are under no obligation to take any action recommended by that group. As a matter of fact, according to the law, should the AO decide at some point that they no longer want to certify interpreters, they can do that too!

The AO now has two officers in the court interpreter program that are experienced federally-certified interpreters of Spanish. That means we have “friendlies” in D.C., but do not for one minute think their job is to do our bidding with the AO. Their job, like everyone else who works for the judicial branch, is to make sure the courts, i.e., judges, can dispense justice equitably and expeditiously.

Understanding the boundaries of what the AO can and cannot do for us, as a professional group, should help us keep our efforts to address collective grievances and other issues targeted, so we may arrive at the most efficient and expeditious resolution. It is time for us to dispense with the fantasy that someone else is going to change, solve or improve whatever we, as a profession, think needs to be changed, solved or improved.

This is our profession. It is up to us to establish the mechanisms we need to make it what we want it to be.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

17 thoughts on “Understanding the AO”

  1. Leo Perales says:

    Excellent points Janis. This misconception exists even in the state court system. Many state certified/licensed interpreters have the misconception that the state administrative office of the court can act as a mediator in billing disputes or interpreters disputes between a particular court and interpreters. Unfortunately that’s not the case..

    1. Janis Palma says:

      True! It’s not just a “federal” misconception. Thank you, Leo.

  2. Thank you very much, Janis, for this insightful post on the AO. That has been very clear to me since the beginning. I consider myself fortunate for working in a District that treats its interpreters fairly and equitably.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      You are truly fortunate, Esther. Let’s hope some day (soon) that becomes the norm in every court.

      Thank you.

  3. Virginia Kulig says:

    Thank you Janis for your insightful and accurate post.

    Do you have any suggestions for mechanisms we can collectively implement to support our profession in working with the AO, or other entity?

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Virginia. I don’t have specific suggestions but am hoping NAJIT members will “pick up the ball” and run with it.

  4. Alfredo Babler says:

    Great, informative article, as usual, Ms. Janis. I am truly humbled by your knowledge. I might be going off on a tangent here, and if I am, please forgive me, but the first thing that came to my old, cynical, somewhat jaded, and decrepit mind was: If you are going to insist to someone that has been working in the court system for over 15 years (Federal, State, County, whatever) in an administrative position, making forty grand a year, if they’re lucky, that you want a $600 a day rate or something along those lines, I don’t know, but I’d expect some sort of trepidation (on a good day) and lots of needle pricks on a voodoo doll with your name on it (on an okay day). On a bad day, they’d probably offer you a coffee and spike it with ink toner and bilirubin. How do you get past the red tape and skip the middle man? Hmmm. And once you succeed and tell the same thing to the senior admin. staff member that makes, maybe, 55 grand a year and has been working there for 18 years… but I may be way out of my league opining about this. Janis, what’s that 1/2 day and full day Fed rate nowadays, so I can have a more clear perspective ? If I’m way out in left field, and proverbially talking out of my butt, sorry for the disconnect. Remember, in my day we played with a wooden box. Get off my lawn! LOL.

  5. Kathleen M. Morris Morris says:

    This is a very useful article.

    How do you suggest that interpreters efficiently and expeditiously address and resolve the increasingly common hiring of non-FCCI certified interpreters for court work?

    Is it legal for District Court judges, or their staffs, to blatantly ignore the provision of the Federal Interpreters Act, which specifies the preferential hiring of FCCI’s for Spanish cases, in favor of “judicial economy”? There should be a mechanism available for FCCI”s to be able to monitor, upon request, whether this rule is being followed by court hiring officers.

  6. Maribel PINTADO-ESPIET says:

    Your article is a good reality check. I should point out that the State of Massachusetts is the only state which has a central office (OCIS) within the Administrative Office, charged with the training, certification, and assignment of the interpreters to ALL criminal matters and some civil matters (primarily what falls under Juvenile and Family Court). I was the first Coordinator appointed in 1986. The system has had its ups and downs but I will always be very proud of what we were able to accomplish. Having said that, an office scheduling the assignments does not guarantee assignments to all interpreters but it does guarantee the courts that they will have the interpreters they need.

  7. Susana Gee says:

    Janis, This article comes at an opportune moment as the 427 examinees who took the oral portion of the FCICE in September of 2017 furiously and patiently await our results. I am certain you are aware of this debacle. Just yesterday we received the report with the results of the independent psychometric study; I am happy to share it with you, it is both enlightening and infuriating! Your article saves me a lot of potentially wasted breath. Regards,

    1. Maria Teresa Perez says:

      Thank you for your reply to the very good, and apropos, article from Janis Palma. I too, share the frustration of the unknown lines of communication among the courts, test administrators, exam webinar instructors and coordinators, let’s not forget, the payment window. Can you please share with us, “the results of the independent psychometric study”, so that we too, can understand what that is?
      “La union hace la fuerza” Perhaps together we can accomplish some uniformity, among other things. (like who’s in charge?)

      Thank you.

  8. Alfredo Babler says:

    Wow, they’re doing psychonetric testing nowadays? Good grief! I’d better stop writing on this blog before they throw me in pink padded room. Since when have they been doing the loco thing for court interpreters at the federal courts? And, if I show up to it wearing a tinfoil hat, would that be frowned upon? Just because you’re not paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Muhahahahah. All right, all right, sorry, I’ll try to be more serious, and proper and whatnot.

  9. Antonio Gavilanez says:

    Re: NAJIT Conference–2018

    Are you thinking of attending? If so… looking for a roommate (to manage the costs)? I’m booked in a doubles room. Please let me know.

  10. Maria Teresa Perez says:

    “The Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. §1827(link is external) provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters, when the Director considers certification of interpreters to be merited, for the hearing impaired (whether or not also speech impaired) and persons who speak only or primarily a language other than the English language, in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States.”

  11. Maria Teresa Perez says:

    I FOUND IT!!!

    James C. Duff is the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He was appointed to the position by Chief Justice John Roberts effective January 1, 2015.

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