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Ohio High Court Looking To Mandate Court Interpreter Certification

Over the past decade Ohio has seen its non-English speaking population grow. Sometimes immigrants find themselves in a courtroom struggling to understand an unfamiliar language. While Ohio courts use interpreters, the state does not have any formal way of ensuring they are qualified. Ohio is slowly working toward a certification requirement. Two years ago, Ohio Appeals Court Judge Julia Dorrian was presiding over a criminal hearing in Franklin County Municipal Court and the defendant did not speak English. A Spanish interpreter was brought in to help, but the defense attorney had his doubts. Come to find out, the interpreter was not very good. He was making up words or using the wrong words. The interpreter had worked with many defendants in Judge Dorrian's courtroom. And she speaks Spanish. "Nevertheless, I was not aware of the fact that he was making up words, or as he said, I think the folks understand the jist of what's being said. Well, the jist of what's being said is not enough when you're standing before a court," Dorrian said. Dorrian said the interpreter was well-intentioned. But she said he was not providing accurate or complete interpretations. "It's all about due process rights and making sure that folks get a fair hearing and trial in the courts. It's about the effective assistance of counsel which is a constitutional right, whether or not someone can actually communicate with your attorney. It's about confronting witnesses against you. Do you understand what they say you did?" Dorrian said. There is nothing in Ohio law that spells out what makes a qualified interpreter. It's up to individual judges to decide if interpreters are qualified. "It's very difficult to make that determination, especially if the judge does not speak the language that the interpreter is interpreting. And even when a judge does speak that language, it's still difficult to make that determination because we cannot always hear what the interpreter is saying to the attorney, to the defendant or the party in the case," Dorrian said. The Ohio Supreme Court is trying to clarify things. It created the Interpreter Services Program which gives courts some guidelines, suggests questions to test an interpreter's skill and offers training. It's developed standards and policies for courts and interpreters and offers optional certification. But still there is no certification requirement. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is pushing for the mandate. She said fairness, justice and the changing faces of the country make the issue even more imperative. "When you look at the demographics of this country and you see the influx of, you know, people coming to America to become part of America, and the use of our court system is very much part of America," O'Connor said. Columbus Attorney Joe Mas said years ago there was a sense, from the community and even courts, that knowledgeable interpreters just weren't needed. But he said he does not think that's the case today. Mas said he thinks certification will make it less cumbersome for judges who strive to get the best interpreters. "Once that the judges know how to contact the certified interpreters then their task is much, much easier because now you don't necessarily have to call the college down the road to see if there is a Spanish language professor that might be available," Mas said. "And that is exactly what they used to have to do." If the high court imposes a mandate, Ohio courts would be required to use certified interpreters who have passed both written and oral exams. And interpreters will have to be able to translate legal terms and phrases accurately. The Interpreters Services Program reports Ohio courtrooms need more than 18,000 interpretations a year, involving 57 languages.