Legalese not easy in Gilbert
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 24, 2004
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
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
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
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
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,"
"It's not a growing pain, but it definitely shows that the town is changing.
We'd be lost without an interpreter."