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Language barriers in court might lead to S.D. standards

Monday, November 16, 2009

A South Dakota Supreme Court committee is studying how to create a statewide set of standards for courtroom interpreters.
Each year, more people who speak little or no English move through the state's judicial system, and it is up to counties to decide who is qualified to translate for them.
That can lead to problems, Supreme Court Legal Counsel Greg Sattizahn said, especially in cases where a defendant speaks a rare language that lacks in exact translations for judicial terms.
"Just because someone has experience in a language doesn't mean they're going to understand the language of the judicial system," Sattizahn said.
But if the committee recommends statewide certification standards for interpreters and the system is adopted, smaller counties could suffer, Minnehaha County court administrator and committee member Karl Thoennes said.
Not all court systems have the resources Minnehaha County has, and finding and paying for certified translators can be expensive.
"To get a certified Spanish interpreter in Minnehaha County might be easy," Thoennes said. "For Omoro (an East African language) in Brule County, it could be really tough."
Requiring a live interpreter is a particularly expensive proposition. The 5th Circuit, which includes Brown, Day and Roberts counties, uses Language Line for interpretation, Court Administrator Angie Goetz said.
The telephone service charges by the minute for over-the-phone interpretation and has worked well thus far, but such a service does not work for a full-blown trial.
"Thank goodness we haven't had a trial where we've had to bring a person in," Goetz said.
A live interpreter is necessary when lawyers confer with their client, both inside and outside the courtroom, but smaller counties do not have easy access to local interpreters.
Minnehaha County spends about $85,000 of its $8 million yearly budget on interpreters, Thoennes said.
Courts in Sioux Falls turn to Language Line, Lutheran Social Services and Communication Services for the Deaf for interpreters. There are two or three translators in court every day.
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