Wisconsin Examiner

Legal Group Asks For Trained Interpreters in Municipal Courts

All other Wisconsin courts already have the requirement.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - May 17th, 2024 12:45 pm
The Milwaukee Municipal Court. File photo by Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch.

The Milwaukee Municipal Court. File photo by Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch.

A legal reform organization is asking the state Supreme Court to require municipal courts in Wisconsin to use trained interpreters in all cases that involve people who speak little or no English.

Municipal courts are the only branch of Wisconsin’s court system not required to provide full interpreter services for defendants, according to the Wisconsin Justice Initiative (WJI), which submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on Wednesday to change the interpreter rule. The nonprofit educational organization advocates for progressive change in the Wisconsin justice system.

Wisconsin has 230 municipal courts, and they handle more than 400,000 cases per year.

Municipal courts hear drunk driving cases, building and health code violations, and criminal charges including disorderly conduct, vandalism, marijuana possession and assault and battery. People convicted can face fines or forfeitures of thousands of dollars, according to Jim Gramling, a former Milwaukee municipal judge and board member of WJI.

“Defendants in these cases deserve full interpreter services,” Gramling said in a WJI press statement and blog post.

Currently municipal courts only require qualified interpreters in cases involving juveniles. For all other cases, municipal judges can enlist a friend or family member of a person who doesn’t speak English to fill that role.

In cases involving people with low English proficiency, circuit courts in Wisconsin are already required to use qualified interpreters. Qualified interpreters must meet certain requirements for their capabilities and accuracy, according to WJI.

The WJI’s proposed rule would require a qualified interpreter in court for an evidentiary hearing and allow a state court-approved interpreter service via phone, video or computer for other proceedings, such as initial appearances and status conferences.

Untrained family members, friends or strangers would no longer be permitted to act as interpreters under the proposed rule.

“[These] individuals almost certainly lack professional training as interpreters, let alone the specialized legal training necessary for properly interpreting court proceedings,” WJI argues in the brief accompanying its petition. “The ability to understand the words of the judge and the opposing party during a legal proceeding is a crucial element of due process. Without the help of a qualified interpreter, [low English proficiency] individuals cannot meaningfully participate in their own legal proceedings.”

Gramling said that most municipal court defendants in Wisconsin don’t have a lawyer to represent them. For those defendants, not being able to understand the language spoken in court makes their challenges worse, he said.

WJI said the petition is part of a broader project to improve municipal court outcomes for defendants, especially people with low incomes or belonging to minority groups.

Legal reform group asks Court to require trained interpreters in municipal courts was originally published by Wisconsin Examiner.

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