Wednesday, March 12, 2003 | 11:23 a.m.
When 15 men and women graduated from a new program Monday afternoon, Nevada reached the same level as 29 other states in court assistance for people who speak only Spanish.
A swearing-in ceremony at the Las Vegas chambers of the state Supreme Court was the last step for the first graduates of a statewide program that uses standardized training and tests for certifying courtroom interpreters. The first group were all trained and certified in Spanish.
"This is very much needed and very much overdue," Chief Justice Deborah A. Agosti said before the ceremony.
"To ensure justice for those who do not speak English, it is vital that we can ensure the competence of those who perform translation services."
Having certified interpreters in Nevada not only helps those who don't speak English, it prevents the kinds of mistakes that can result in costly appeals, said Edwin Canizalez, administrator for the program, called the National Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification.
"You don't want to put the wrong people in jail, and this program helps avoid that," Canizalez said.
The small group graduated from the program at a time when nearly one in five residents of Clark County who answered a recently released Census Bureau survey said they spoke Spanish at home.
Mariteresa Rivera-Rogers, one of Monday's graduates, is more qualified than most to judge the need for the new program.
She has directed a staff of interpreters in District Court for 21 years. In their first year, the interpreters were needed for about 3,600 cases. In 2002, they were needed in about 34,000 cases. About 90 percent of the cases require Spanish interpreters, she said.
Until now, interpreters working in her program have taken a test written in part by Rivera-Rogers, but the veteran administrator and interpreter has long lobbied for the state to adopt national standards.
"This (program) gives the whole state the same standard and makes the state at the same level as much of the rest of the country," she said.
The move was approved by the 2001 Legislature, after several attempts to set up similar programs had fallen short since 1989. The program cost the state $143,199 in 2002 and $109,538 this year. It should pay for itself through training and testing fees over time, Canizalez said.
A list of the program's first 15 graduates and those to come will be circulated to judges statewide, and state law recommends that certified interpreters be used for criminal trials in which defendants are facing lengthy prison sentences. It also recommends that certified interpreters be used for criminal or civil trials where technical language is likely to be used.
Nevada was apace with the rest of the nation in having the program's first graduates trained to interpret for Spanish speakers.
"Spanish is certainly the number one request, but others are growing rapidly," said Wanda Romberger, manager of interpreter services for the National Center for State Courts, the organization that oversees the consortium.
Interpreters in Nevada will also be certified in 10 other languages in the coming years, Canizalez said.
Before the 15 interpreters were sworn in Monday, District Judge Valorie Vega recalled the years of work that had gone into bringing Nevada up to the same level as 29 other states.
She recalled a case in which an interpreter whose qualifications were suspect confused the Spanish word for fender with the one for bumper, during a case involving an accident.
In another case, the defendant's rights were summed up by the interpreter with the question, "Do you want to talk or keep quiet?"
"With this program," Agosti said, "we hope those days are now behind us."