New Funding for Court Interpreters Helps Clients, Judges … and Justice

Tennesseans with limited English proficiency have more meaningful access to court proceedings because of new rules and funding related to the provision of interpreter services. With the full support of the Tennessee Supreme Court the AOC requested, and Gov. Haslam included in the 2012-2013 AOC budget, an additional $2 million for the costs of spoken language interpreters for court hearings. The Tennessee General Assembly ultimately approved this request, and funding became available July 1, 2012.

This funding allows for payment of interpreter costs for all court hearings in all cases in juvenile, general sessions, trial and appellate courts, regardless of the indigence of the parties. The AOC will also pay for costs of interpreters during court hearings when victims of crimes, or in the case of a homicide, the next-of-kin, are present. In Rule 13 cases where the party is found indigent, the AOC will, in addition, pay for the costs of interpreters for pre-trial conferences between defendants and district attorneys in order to relay a plea offer immediately prior to a court appearance or to discuss a continuance and for communication between client and state-funded counsel appointed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 13; and communication between client, state-funded counsel and others for the purpose of gathering background information, investigation, trial preparations and witness interviews.

This funding gives a rare and new opportunity for the courts to provide Limited English Proficiency (LEP) persons with more meaningful access to court hearings; to enable judges to better communicate with parties; and to enable LEP persons to more fully participate in court proceedings. The AOC is reviewing options for interpretation services, including the use of contracted personnel, salaried personnel and regional offices to provide the services via video and phone, as well as remote interpreting options using individual interpreters from a home or office.

History of Funding

In years past, the AOC has received funding from the General Assembly to pay for interpreters only in Supreme Court Rule 13 cases — those cases in which a person is found to be indigent and is entitled either constitutionally or legislatively to be represented by an attorney. These cases included criminal cases where there is a possibility of incarceration, child dependency and neglect cases, termination of parental rights cases and others as listed in the Rule (see Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 13(1)(d)(1) and (2)). Therefore, the court provided in Rule 42 that “the costs of interpreter services in both civil and criminal cases shall be taxed as court costs pursuant to Tenn. R. Crim. P. 28 and Tenn. R. Civ. P. 54” and “Interpreter services may be assessed against the indigent defense fund pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 13 in appropriate circumstances.” Since there was no funding to pay for the costs of interpreters in civil cases, or non-indigent Rule 13 cases, the AOC applied for and received some short-term funding from Byrne grants for specific interpretation costs in certain specific cases (order of protection hearings and non-indigent Rule 13 cases). The AOC also applied for and received federal funding to pay for remote interpreter equipment so as to provide qualified interpreters in areas where there is a shortage of the same. These were short-term grants and funding was not consistent for payment of interpreter costs in any cases but those listed in Rule 13.

In 1999, the Administrative Office of the Courts obtained a federal Byrne grant to commence the creation of a pilot program for training and testing court interpreters. At the end of this pilot program in 2002, the Tennessee Supreme Court created Supreme Court Rules 41 and 42 providing for interpreter use, ethics and credentialing. The rules apply to all interpreters in all courts in this state, including without limitation, municipal court, general sessions court, juvenile court, probate court, circuit court, chancery court and criminal court.

Section 3 of Rule 42 provides that appointing an interpreter is a matter of judicial discretion, and it is the responsibility of the court to determine whether a participant in a legal proceeding has a limited ability to understand and communicate in English. Once an interpreter need is determined, the court must appoint a qualified interpreter. The court must use the highest credentialed interpreter first, and if the court uses lesser-qualified interpreters, the court must make findings that “the proposed interpreter appears to have adequate language skills, knowledge of interpreting techniques, familiarity with interpreting in a court setting” and that the “proposed interpreter has read, understands, and will abide by the Rules of Ethics for Spoken Foreign Language Interpreters in Tennessee Courts.”

In August 2010, all chief justices and court administrators across the country received a letter from Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez with the Department of Justice (DOJ). In this letter, he defined meaningful access as providing interpreters (qualified interpreters) for all court proceedings at no cost to the participants. He also noted that Title VI regulations provide that “reasonable steps” must be taken to provide “meaningful access” to LEP individuals.


Anne-Louise Wirthlin ANNE-LOUISE WIRTHLIN is the access to justice coordinator for the Administrative Office of the Courts, where she provides day-to-day administration for the Access to Justice Commission and its advisory committees. Prior to that, she was the AOC’s programs manager, practiced law as a contract attorney working with TennCare, then worked at a small family law practice.

Wirthlin earned her law degree from the University of Tennessee and her LLM in taxation from the University of Alabama. She sits on the board for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and is trained in Rule 31 General Civil mediation.

MARY ROSE ZINGALE is director of the Court Services Division for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Her duties include overseeing many of the court’s programs, including the access to justice initiative, Rule 31 ADR Commission, continuing education for judges and clerks, criminal courts’ court reporters, court interpreter credentialing program and grants obtained by the AOC. She received her law degree from Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa. Prior to her move to Tennessee, she was the Fourth Judicial District Court Family Court Master in Nevada. She is a licensed attorney in Tennessee and Nevada and an inactive Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 listed family mediator.