Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and Chief Judge Timothy Evans Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

While observing eviction court proceedings last year, I witnessed a landlord and tenant who both spoke Spanish in the process of negotiating in front of Judge Alison Conlon. A court interpreter stood between them, translating what each said to the other for a patiently attentive Conlon. It seemed that the parties were coming to an agreement, with the landlord leaning toward letting the tenant stay in her apartment a little longer before moving out. Suddenly, the interpreter stopped translating, and turned to Conlon: “Judge, could you please tell them they need to sort this out on their own? I had to be in the courtroom next door for another hearing five minutes ago.”

With that, the judge told the landlord and tenant to try to come to an agreement and ordered another date for their case, and the interpreter scurried out of the room. I wondered if the case could have been resolved right then had the interpreter not been pressed for time and they were allowed to conclude their negotiations that day. At the very least, it could have saved the court resources related to holding another hearing on the case.

It’s not unusual for court interpreters to be caught in this sort of bind. Currently, there are just 28 full-time and 60 part-time court interpreters working across Cook County. The vast majority of them interpret for native Spanish speakers, but there is also a small cadre of Polish-language interpreters as well as those that speak other languages ranging from Arabic to Urdu. Together the interpreters handle more than 60,000 civil and criminal cases per year, with some stationed permanently at a courthouse while others travel around the county as needed. Already, many of these interpreters feel overworked.

But with a new round of furloughs demanded by Chief Judge Timothy Evans on April 25, several have told the Reader that Cook County residents’ due process rights—and in some cases even their safety—could be in jeopardy. If the unionized interpreters don’t each agree to take ten days of furlough by November, two full-time interpreters will be let go.  The interpreters argue that the furlough days will have as much of a negative impact on the public as the permanent staff cuts.

Facing a $200 million budget shortfall after the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle demanded 10 percent budget cuts across all county agencies last fall, and identified more than 300 positions to be eliminated. More than half of them were in the Office of the Chief Judge, which employs some 2,700 people, including interpreters, probation officers, and forensic experts. In late November Evans sued the county, claiming Preckwinkle didn’t have the authority to tell him who to lay off. Some of the positions targeted by the president fell within the jurisdiction of 13 unions that represent workers in the chief judge’s office. Others were senior, nonunionized management staff.

Evans circulated the preliminary results of his negotiations with the county to all of his employees on April 24. “The settlement enables us to save all 180 employees originally scheduled for layoffs by the County Board,” Evans announced in an internal memo obtained by the Reader. “We instead are pursuing employee furloughs.” Evans wrote that nonunionized workers would have to take ten days of furlough and that unionized staff had a choice between furloughs or layoffs, which “will occur as outlined in union contracts.”

The next day, the 13 unions representing Evans’s staff received letters asking for the furloughs and identifying positions that would be eliminated if they didn’t agree to take them.

Craig Rosenbaum, executive director of the Chicago News Guild, which represents the interpreters (and, full disclosure, the staff of the Reader), says neither furloughs nor layoffs are acceptable. “It’ll cause havoc in the courts because there’ll be a shortage of interpreters,” he says. The furloughs mean there would be days when defendants and petitioners in Cook County courts don’t have access to interpreters, causing delay in processing cases. “From a civil rights perspective it’s not acceptable to the residents of our community,” Rosenbaum says, adding that cutbacks in hours and staffing could open up the county to costly civil rights lawsuits.

Rosenbaum says that the furloughs would amount to a 4 percent pay cut for the interpreters, who make between $25 and $30 per hour. But, he adds, “if you’re looking at it as a civil rights issue, there’s no difference between furloughs and layoffs.”

Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for Evans, said Wednesday that “the furlough plan is needed to ensure that the Office of the Chief Judge has a balanced budget. Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans has urged the unions to embrace the furlough plan so that no employees lose their job, and the justice system can maintain current service levels.”

Several court interpreters spoke with the Reader on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They said current staffing levels and mismanagement already pose a threat to defendants’ and petitioners’ due process rights.

One Polish interpreter related that a defendant called last week to ask about privately hiring her for a hearing in the suburbs. “I said there’s gonna be a Polish interpreter there [provided by the county]. The defendant said to me, ‘They told me that last time and there was no interpreters, and so I want to hire you to go to court with me.'” The interpreter said she was shocked. “They could lose their case or they’re forced to come back the next day or in a week. This is unacceptable.”

A Spanish interpreter said that management exacerbates the short staffing by assigning inadequate numbers of interpreters for the volume of cases in each courtroom. “It’s because management wants to cut corners,” she said. “[Judges] have to stop the proceedings or schedule for another day because there’s not enough interpreters.”

Another interpreter said she was particularly concerned about the shortage of interpreters in domestic violence cases. “Battered women have to be turned away because there’s no interpreter,” she says. “They can’t get that order of protection that day because there’s no interpreter. The consequences are a woman is going back into an abusive situation. The consequences could be—I don’t want to be dramatic, but they could be severe. There are emotional and there could be physical consequences.”

Milhizer disputed the interpreter’s descriptions of the short staffing at domestic violence courtrooms. “The Domestic Violence Courthouse is staffed with three Spanish interpreters and one Polish interpreter. This is adequate staffing for this courthouse,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Our information is that the lack of availability of an interpreter for a case has been a rare occurrence.”

The settlement between Evans and the county is still in negotiations, and will have to be approved by the Cook County Board. Though Milhizer says he can’t comment on the litigation, the furlough plan seems to be integral to Evans’s strategy for balancing his budget, and it only accounts for about half of the $13 million shortfall his office was facing for 2018 as a result of the soda tax repeal.