Legalese not easy in Gilbert
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 24, 2004 

Chris Ramirez

Municipal Court deals with growing need for interpreters
Most people are quiet in courtrooms.

Not Lupita Carnagey.

In most hearings, her mouth runs constantly, except for a pause here and
there to catch her breath.

But to Gilbert Municipal Judge David Phares, Carnagey's chatter is anything but disruptive.

It's encouraged.

Carnagey, who speaks Spanish and English, is an interpreter - the only one in Gilbert's Municipal Court. Miranda rights, lawyer arguments, clerk's queries about the next available court date and more filter through Carnagey, one word at a time.

Without her, thousands of people each yearwould be shortchanged on justice.

Though only part time, Carnagey's work is significant.

People like her are valuable in the legal system as Arizona copes with a shortage of trained court translators.

Unlike California and New Mexico, Arizona does not certify court interpreters, meaning there's no database or registry of translators. That can be particularly hard on smaller, limited-jurisdiction courts, which generally have small interpreter staffs and must contract help if no one is available.

"I can't imagine how we could run a court without an interpreter," Phares said.

Gilbert Municipal Court handles about 20,000 to 27,000 cases a year, mainly misdemeanor crimes, drunken driving and traffic offenses. Court officials estimate that 25 percent of them require an interpreter.

In his biannual progress report to Town Council, Phares said the Gilbert courthouse continues to see a growing need for interpreters. He said there has been a rise recently in the number of defendants who spoke languages other than English or Spanish.

Gilbert Court Administrator Judy Richitelli would like a full-time Spanish-language interpreter, but there's no money for one. Richitelli said she plans to gradually increase part-time interpreter hours and mold the position into a full-time job.

The need for interpreter services is expected to increase as the Gilbert Police Department hires 80 officers over the next five years. More cops on the beat could mean more citations and heavier caseloads in court.

"The way the town is growing and changing. . . . I don't see how we could continue much longer without having one (full-time interpreter)," Richitelli said.

Phares said Gilbert's court recently has had to put out the call for interpreters who speak Serbian, Chinese, Tagalog, Tongan and more obscure Mexican Indian dialects. The town has $4,000 to help pay for interpreter service as needed.

Efforts are under way to get more interpreters for Arizona courtrooms, particularly those in limited-jurisdiction courthouses.

In March, state Superior Court Judge Silvia Arellano went public with her support for Senate Bill 1733, the Court Interpreters Grant Awards Act. Introduced last fall, the bill directs the federal Justice Department to provide state grants for interpreters.

Each year, interpreters are required for more than 145,000 court settings statewide involving 15 languages other than Spanish, Supreme Court spokesman Ted Wilson said, based on a commission's findings. Among the non-Spanish languages most-requested are Hmong and Russian.

Wilson estimated that at least $100,000 would be needed to start a state certification program, which would cover monitoring interpreters, testing their qualifications, recruiting interpreters and developing ethics codes. A formal request for the funds may be made to the Legislature for the 2006 fiscal-year budget, he said.

The help can't come soon enough, said Kathleen Penney, president of the Arizona Court Interpreters Association.

Her group has been pushing for state licensing and certification for interpreters, both to create a database and to ensure quality.

Penney said several states have developed a consortium, agreeing to accept certain written and oral interpreter tests as a standard. But even that can't be strictly enforced without state guidelines behind it.

"Because we don't have state licensing and certification there's no registry of interpreters and no way for courts to check an interpreter's credentials," she said. "If someone shows up and says, 'I'm an interpreter,' in Arizona they have to be taken for their word."

The Gilbert court's newfound need for translators for languages other than Spanish tracks what the town's Human Relations Commission already knew: Gilbert is becoming more diverse.

"The town's changing," commission Chairwoman Tami Smull said. "Part of having a successful community is respect for an individual's rights. Receiving a fair trial is certainly part of that."

And that means for everyone.

Six months ago, the court had to contract two sign-language interpreters for a single case.

In that matter, the defendant, who grew up in Mexico, could only communicate using his hands in an obscure form of sign language that didn't translate directly to American Sign Language.

A Spanish sign language expert was called in to translate the defendant's words for an ASL interpreter, who then relayed testimony in English for the court.

"We're being challenged every week to come up with interpreters. We need them," Phares said.

"It's not a growing pain, but it definitely shows that the town is changing. We'd be lost without an interpreter."