WILSON: Should Illinois provide interpreters for jurors who don't speak English?

Posted: May. 9, 2014 1:25 pm Updated: Aug. 1, 2014 2:15 pm

Many people who pay attention to government bodies know what it's like to think some politicians are speaking a different language.

Legislation that was approved in the Illinois Senate last week would fit into that category. It would set up a pilot program with interpreters for jurors who don't speak English.

Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, sponsored the bill to pair up interpreters with non-English-speaking jurors not only in the courtroom, but during the deliberation process.

"In many of our communities, qualified jurors able to serve wisely and honorably in the pursuit of justice are excluded because they need language assistance," Martinez said.

She said the proposal, which still has to come up for consideration in the House, would protect the integrity of the judicial process because "the interpreter would be required to swear an oath to interpret all testimony faithfully and not to interject his or her personal opinion."

Let's set aside the question of costs versus benefits and look only at the legal problems with this bill.

Courts keep transcripts of everything that's said and everything that's done during a case. Losing attorneys often go over everything in these transcripts, weighing every single word, looking for grounds to appeal the rulings they don't like.

What kind of transcripts are going to be kept on the interpreters? How would those transcripts be kept when the interpreters and the non-English-speaking jurors are in deliberations, where court personnel and recording devices are not allowed?

Words are a big deal in the courtroom. Attorneys battle in pretrial motions over what evidence and what descriptions are allowed in the case.

Interpreters need not interject their own opinions about a case in order to have an impact. When a witness talks about driving to the crime scene "in his ride," how does that get translated? Does the interpreter go into the colloquial definition and miss the next few words of testimony? Does the interpreter describe it as a vehicle, car, truck, jalopy, roadster, automobile or any of a dozen other alternatives? Even the most trivial use of different verbiage can be argued as an unfair bias by trial attorneys. That's their job.

Opponents of this bill need not be anti-Latino or prejudiced against non-English speaking people. They may wish to avoid a flurry of appeals. They may wish to see how much it will cost and whether it offers any benefits over empaneling a jury where nobody needs an interpreter.

Is this a bill that will have unintended consequences?

Martinez has served in the Senate for 11 years and is well respected in the chamber. She is promoting a bill that she believes is in the best interest of her constituents the 20th Senate District.

It is not bigotry to ask whether her bill is in the best interest of the entire state.


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