Nebraska Supreme Court Justice William Cassel

Nebraska Supreme Court Justice William Cassel speaks during a class for court interpreters at Northeast Community College on Thursday evening. 

Northeast Nebraskans with a strong grasp of the English language who are fluent in a second language may be able to take advantage of a career opportunity right here in Norfolk.

That’s thanks to a first-of-its-kind in the nation collaboration between the state’s judicial branch and the Adult Education Division at Northeast Community College.

An informational session on court interpreter training offered at Northeast took place Thursday evening at the Lifelong Learning Center, held in conjunction with the college’s extended campus in South Sioux City via satellite.

Jennifer Verhein, the statewide language access coordinator, said the purpose of the program is to recruit, train and ultimately certify Nebraska court interpreters to provide language access in courts and probation offices across the state.

Having enough interpreters to cover all of the proceedings that are needed is a scheduling challenge, she said.

“Sometimes we have interpreters appearing by telephone or video for non-evidentiary proceedings, rather than having an interpreter appear in person. ... In a perfect world — or even in a perfect Nebraska — we would be able to provide a person court interpretation for any language that any party speaks in any kind of case,” Verhein said.

Nebraska court interpreters are provided to any person who is limited English proficient, regardless of what kind of a case they are involved in — from small claims to a divorce trial to a child support case or criminal proceedings. The service is provided to any litigant at no cost.

“That is a cost that the Nebraska Judicial Branch bears to assure justice,” Verhein said.

In the Midwest, Nebraska actually has the highest percentage of limited English residents, she said.

“And so we are seeing Burmese, we are seeing Somali and we’re seeing a variety of other languages on the rise in Nebraska. We need prospective interpreters that are willing to develop the knowledge skills and abilities to provide language access in their communities,” Verhein said.

JUSTICE WILLIAM CASSEL with the Nebraska Supreme Court said the partnership with Northeast is an exciting development.

“This is an ongoing effort by the Supreme Court now for many, many years, and it is absolutely vital to justice to have accurate interpretation. Nebraska is too small a state for individual courts to be responsible for the sort of certification and training that needs to be done to ensure you have accurate interpretation of foreign languages,” Cassel said.

His predecessor for District 3, Judge John Gerrard, was instrumental in the original development of rules and programs in language access. Cassel said when he joined the Supreme Court, he took over that responsibility, and it has since been passed on to Judge John Freudenberg, who began his legal career in Norfolk.

“So there are multiple levels of connection between the judges of the Supreme Court and court language access and the development of that’s being achieved here,” Cassel said.

Access to court interpreters is of great importance, and the absence of translation can easily lead to a miscarriage of justice, he said.

“Imagine going into a ballpark to play a game by the rules you’ve never seen, you can’t understand and nobody can tell you what they are. ... A mis-translation of a critical fact could very well be a conviction that should not have been a conviction. It could lead to consequences on the civil side that people should not have to suffer.

“Consequently, the courts of justice have recognized that this is a part of the constitutional protection of due process,” Cassel said.

THE TRAINING for prospective court interpreters that will be offered at Northeast is at no cost.

However, interpreter orientation and the final oral exam do carry fees.

Julie Clark, the adult education coordinator at Northeast, said she is excited to see an economic opportunity that didn’t previously exist in the 20-county service area for those who know more than one language.

“Any time you have a marriage of education and justice, I don’t think there’s any better trilogy in terms of us being able to support the people in our economic area and them in turn gaining a skill and a paycheck that goes back and actually helps the people in our area,” Clark said.

Judge Cassel said the unique and unprecedented collaboration between the state court system and Northeast is something in which he takes great pride.

Verhein added that Nebraska should be proud of the incredible support that the Supreme Court has for access to justice.

“It is an absolute commitment from the very top of our Supreme Court down to every court in the State of Nebraska that we provide language access to litigants in every kind of case that comes into our courts,” she said.

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Want to learn more?

Contact Julie Clark at jclark15@northeast.edu. The interpreter orientation workshop, the first step in the interpreter training program, will be at Northeast Community College in the Maclay Building on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 28-29.

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