-By Carol Shaw
There are people in this world who see a disconnect in a system and ask what can be done. Then there are those who see the disconnect and ask what they can do.
Meet Robert Joe Lee, doer.
Not that he started out to fix the system nationwide. He started down that road as a seminary student and prison chaplain in New Jersey, trying to fix the holes in language access that impacted Spanish-speaking inmates.
When Robert Joe initially approached the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to discuss the problem and advocate for change, he was brushed aside. That was in 1974. The son of missionaries in El Salvador and Guatemala, he had lived almost a year in Central America. He minored in Spanish in college, worked as a bilingual secretary for a radio ministry in Mexico as an adult, and had developed a deep interest in languages, cultures, and justice. He worked with Spanish-speaking inmates by choice. And this unjust treatment was not something he could walk away from.
So, Robert Joe did something unexpected. After graduating from seminary, he pursued a Master’s in Criminal Justice. Then he went to work as a research associate for the very same AOC, which put him in the right place at the right time when opportunity came knocking.
In October of 1980, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey received a letter from an Associate Professor of Spanish at Montclair State, who was also the university’s Coordinator for Paralegal Studies. The professor expressed her deep concern over the absence of uniform rules regarding language access in the state’s courts. She went on to explain ways in which the lack of trained, competent interpreters and consistent rules impacted linguistic minorities. The Chief Justice forwarded her letter to the Administrative Director of the Courts, the head of the AOC, who in turn called Robert Joe into his office. The director showed him the letter and asked what he would recommend.
Robert Joe suggested forming a Supreme Court task force to conduct an in-depth study of the degree to which the courts were equally accessible for persons who do not speak English. The administrative heads of the courts suggested he spearhead that task force, researching and identifying needs and making recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Robert Joe accepted and then guided the task force throughout its work.
The New Jersey Supreme Court Task Force on Interpreter and Translator Services operated from 1982 to 1985. After extensive research and submission of the task force’s final report, Robert Joe was asked to do more. He was asked to create, implement, and maintain a comprehensive language access program to provide equal access to people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). So, he did.
The developers of that initial program were Robert Joe, a sign-language interpreter, and a bilingual assistant. Together, they studied the realities of the then-decentralized New Jersey court system and focused on policy, a code of conduct, standards, and testing.
While Robert Joe and his team were reshaping court interpreting in New Jersey, other jurisdictions wanted to begin testing court interpreters. Some of those interested in implementing testing programs and policies contacted Robert Joe for guidance, and he gladly shared New Jersey’s tests in a fledgling effort to increase quality control in those courts. But there was little cohesion in those efforts.
It wasn’t until 1995 that New Jersey, along with Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington, under the leadership of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), founded the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification (superseded in 2012 by three new entities). With his colleagues, Robert Joe helped establish the Consortium’s bank of credentialing exams that member states would use to certify court interpreters. He chaired the Consortium’s Technical Committee, which developed and guided the administration of the certification exams used across the country. He also served on the Consortium’s Executive Committee continuously until his retirement in 2008.
Retirement is a loose term, to be sure. Since leaving the Judiciary’s court interpreter program in New Jersey, Robert Joe has continued to research, teach, and guide. There’s still so much to do.
I visited with Robert Joe by telephone, trying to get a measure of the man. His enthusiasm is infectious. His passion and candor gave me a new understanding of all that lay behind the Consortium test I took so many years ago. I was sorry when our chat came to a close.
At the end of our conversation, I asked him what he thought we, as a community of professionals, should take on next. What was our next big challenge?
Robert Joe paused a moment. “It depends,” he answered. “It depends on how much justice you’re willing to work—and pay—for.”
Robert Joe Lee is the Distinguished Speaker for the ATA Interpreters Division at the ATA Annual Conference in Minneapolis this October 27-30, 2021.
Carol Shaw is the ATA Interpreters Division blog editor and a member of the leadership council.
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