Supreme Court Narrows Meaning of “Interpreting” in Cost Shifting Statute

As Claudia Johnston points out in a Comment, the Supreme Court has (6-3) come up with a narrow definition of “interpreting” in a cost shifting statute, excluding translation of documents.  The decision, TANIGUCHI v. KAN PACIFIC SAIPAN, LTD, is here.

It seems to me that it does not generally serve the cause of access to justice for the word “interpret” to  have a narrow legal definition, and I still fail to understand why the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and a group of academics filed briefs supporting a narrow definition.

I fear this decision, in which Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, dissented, will be used against access to broad language services.  I hope, given the DOJ position, that the effect will be to shift costs to the courts, rather than to cut off the access rights of those with limited English.  We’ll see.


The New York Times agrees describing the decision as “disappointing” in an editorial.

A persistent problem in American courts is the lack of translators to ensure that litigants who don’t speak or read English can take part in their cases. That’s the purpose of the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which allows federal courts to order losing parties to pay prevailing parties the cost of interpreters.

In a disappointing 6-to-3 ruling, the Supreme Court defined “interpreter” narrowly to mean “one who translates orally from one language to another.”


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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1 Response to Supreme Court Narrows Meaning of “Interpreting” in Cost Shifting Statute

  1. Cristina Llop says:

    I have mixed feelings here. i completely agree with your point re. the critical need to include translation costs in the provision for reimbursable costs, and the very unfortunate impact this decision will have on language access. at the same time, and I presume it’s what the amicus brief from NAJIT addressed, I think it’s very dangerous to lump interpreters and translators together, since the skills required are so different. As a certified interpreter, I can honestly say i’m not qualified to carry out complex translations of legal material and I would not want both concepts – translation and interpretation – to become conflated. I most certainly don’t want to fall into the place you point out of “forgetting the access forest for the linguistic trees,” but I am not convinced that a different decision in this case would have been the right way to go. It seems we need to focus on amending the statute to include interpreter AND translation costs. If it’s really true Congress didn’t intent translation costs to be included in the statute (i frankly think they probably did but didn’t think through the real implications of only using one term, either through ignorance or some other reason, political or not), then we need to change the statute and make it clear that both, interpreting AND translation are essential components of language/meaningful access to justice.

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