Wisconsin Justice Initiative
Press Release

WJI calls on Supreme Court to end use of untrained interpreters in municipal courts


By - May 16th, 2024 02:28 pm

Late yesterday afternoon Wisconsin Justice Initiative petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to require trained interpreters in municipal court proceedings involving low-English-proficiency (LEP) individuals.

WJI’s proposed new rule of procedure would bring municipal courts more in line with circuit courts, which are required to use “qualified” interpreters in proceedings involving LEP individuals. Qualified interpreters must meet certain requirements regarding their capabilities and accuracy.

The current rule requires qualified interpreters in municipal courts only in matters involving juveniles. Otherwise, municipal judges are allowed to ask a party to bring a friend or family member—sometimes even a minor child—to court to interpret legal proceedings. The proposed new rule for municipal courts tracks the circuit court rule, with a major difference. The proposed rule divides proceedings into 1) evidentiary hearings that involve testimony and 2) other proceedings. Qualified interpreters would be required for all evidentiary hearings, including trials. In other proceedings, such as initial appearances or status conferences, the municipal court could use a telephonic, video, or computerized service approved by the director of state courts.

Interpretation of legal proceedings by untrained friends, family members, or strangers would no longer be permitted.

WJI wrote in its brief supporting the petition that even assuming family members and friends acting as interpreters are proficient in both languages, “these individuals almost certainly lack professional training as interpreters, let alone the specialized legal training necessary for properly interpreting court proceedings.”

“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, LEP individuals cannot meaningfully participate in their own legal proceedings,” WJI wrote. Holding proceedings without providing qualified interpreters may also amount to national origin discrimination, WJI said.

“Very few defendants in Wisconsin’s municipal courts have attorneys. This problem is compounded for those who do not understand the language being spoken in the courtroom,” said WJI board member and former Milwaukee Municipal Judge Jim Gramling about the need for the petition.

“Municipal courts handle drunk driving cases, building and health code violations, charges of disorderly conduct, vandalism, marijuana possession, assault and battery. Forfeitures can reach into the thousands of dollars. Defendants in these cases deserve full interpreter services,” Gramling said.

“Every court in Wisconsin, by law, must provide full interpreter services for defendants with one exception—the 230 municipal courts which handle over 400,000 cases every year,” Gramling said.

“Municipal courts fly under the radar for the public and media, but that is where many people interact with the court system,” said WJI Executive Director Margo Kirchner. “Those charged with offenses in municipal court, just as in circuit court, should be able to understand what is said and argue their case to the judge with accurate interpretation.”

The petition is part of WJI’s broader effort to improve municipal court outcomes for defendants, especially low-income and minority individuals. “Since 2016, WJI has educated the public about municipal courts, monitored municipal court proceedings, and advocated for an end to jail and driver’s license suspension in response to unpaid municipal court forfeitures,” said Kirchner.

For more detail, see WJI’s May 15, 2024 blog post on the petition at www.wjiinc.org/blog.

NOTE: This press release was submitted to Urban Milwaukee and was not written by an Urban Milwaukee writer. While it is believed to be reliable, Urban Milwaukee does not guarantee its accuracy or completeness.

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