JC/AOC staffer, Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez, recently spoke with the City of Suwanee Chief Municipal Court Judge Norman Cuadra to discuss issues facing court interpreters especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Cuadra serves as co-chair of the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force’s Subcommittee on Interpreters. Interview condensed and edited for clarity.
Noelle Lagueux-Alvarez: What was your path to becoming a judge?
Judge Cuadra: I had been a felony probation officer focusing on gang-related crime in Florida when I decided to go back to law school. During my third year in law school, I had the opportunity to work in a prosecutor’s office. With that experience, after I graduated, I decided to go out on my own. While in private practice, I ended up being the public defender for the City of Doraville. I tried so many cases in the Doraville Municipal Court and kept them late so often, I guess the best way for them to get back at me was to put me on the bench! I was with the City of Doraville for about eight or nine years. For a while during that time, I also served as Municipal Court Judge for the City of Chamblee. In 2014, I was selected to be the Chief Municipal Court Judge for the City of Suwanee where I remain today. I also have a private practice. So, I’ve done just about everything there is to do in a courtroom—prosecutor, public defender, civil litigator, probation officer, and judge. I have a good grasp on what goes on in the courthouse.
NL-A: What do you hope to accomplish as the co-chair of the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force Subcommittee on Interpreters?
Judge Cuadra: We’re working on setting guidelines for interpreters, not just in terms of their procedure, but also as far as their quality. One of the hats I wore in the past was as a member of the Commission on Interpreters from 2010-2015. At that time, we were lucky enough to have Chief Justice Melton as chair and I think we made some tremendous progress in terms of setting guidelines for quality and providing interpreters at no cost.
I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. I’ve been able to work in that niche—representing people who speak Spanish. When I first started out, I had some very complex cases—divorce cases, personal injury cases, and serious felony cases—and my clients had to pay for their interpreter. So not only were they paying me to represent them, on top of that they were getting a bill from another professional charging anywhere from $40 – $60 per hour. So, it became very expensive. And, from an access to justice standpoint, the question became, “why should someone, who is likely being compelled to come into court, have to pay for an interpreter to understand the proceedings?”
What I propose to do on the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force is to set guidelines because you want quality—an interpreter who is going to be able to understand the court system, to know the terminology, and to professionally interpret for somebody. I’ve had cases where one word can make the difference between someone being convicted or not. As far as having to do things by Zoom, there are also lot of hurdles interpreters have had to overcome. For example, a document being presented, and then the interpreter having to interpret that via Zoom.
It’s not just limited-English-proficiency issues that we’re dealing with. It’s also sign language for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. When you’re doing sign language, it is important to be able to see facial expressions. And when you have an opaque mask, you can’t do that. Of course, this needs to be balanced with health risks—we don’t want to have the interpreter exposed to the virus or have them inadvertently infect others in the courtroom. But again, they need to see faces. So, questions arise: Do they use a mask or a face shield? What is the likelihood of transmission with a mask versus a face shield? On Zoom, are they going to be able to see someone’s hand gestures? Those are some of the hurdles, but we are coming up with solutions.
We’ve got some incredible interpreters out there who are coming up with great solutions. For instance, while on Zoom some interpreters are also maintaining direct phone contact with the person they’re interpreting. One thing that most people don’t know and that I didn’t know when I first started, is that Zoom has a separate channel for English and another language so that the interpreter can switch between the two. So, there are a lot of technological advancements that we’ve been able to use and that they’re still working on as well.
A silver lining to this challenging year is that we’re developing a committee to be able to field real-time questions from interpreters around the state. If an interpreter finds themselves in a difficult professional position, they will have someone to call for guidance. We’re working on that now.
NLA: What can be done to support court interpreters right now?
Judge Cuadra: They need technology. There are a lot of counties that don’t have the technology because the funds aren’t there. So, if there is a way to get resources out to those counties, that is definitely needed. The other thing is awareness for judges. Just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean that they can act as an interpreter in a courtroom. There are so many specialty terms that must be translated properly—words like arraignment, or jury trial, or bond schedule, or res ipsa loquitur! In court, sometimes judges will use a family member to translate or interpret. But, if that family member doesn’t know the terms of art like arraignment or due process, they’re not going to be able to interpret effectively. So, there’s more training needed for judges and court staff, and the Commission on Interpreters is great for that.