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California

In civil court, poor litigants won’t have to pay for own court reporter

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Squeezed by budget cuts, San Diego Superior Court in 2012 adopted a rule that it would no longer supply court reporters in civil cases.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

For more than a decade, Barry Jameson fought for his day in court, a fight made more complicated because he began it as an inmate at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.

Three times his lawsuit, claiming that a prison doctor had provided substandard care when Jameson contracted hepatitis C, was thrown out by the trial court in San Diego. And three times, Jameson — representing himself — won on appeal.

In 2014, he got his chance at trial. But after opening statements in San Diego Superior Court, the judge again dismissed the case, ruling that Jameson had not shown he would produce the kind of evidence needed to prove his case.

Again Jameson went to the appeals court. But this time, he lost.

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The reason: As an indigent plaintiff, Jameson could not afford to hire a certified court reporter.

Squeezed by budget cuts because of California’s fiscal problems, San Diego Superior Court in 2012 adopted a rule that it would no longer supply court reporters in civil cases. Litigants would have to hire their own. Courts in other counties such as, Los Angeles and Orange, adopted similar rules.

Appeals courts require a transcript to review and ultimately rule on an appeal. With no transcript, there was no appeal for Jameson. But now Jameson — who has since been paroled — will have another chance to bring his 16-year-old case.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling authored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the San Diego rule requiring poor people to pay for a court reporter violated state laws guaranteeing equal access to justice, and struck it down.

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Cantil-Sakauye wrote that the rule favored wealthy litigants over the poor and was “ inconsistent with the general teaching of prior … decisions and the public policy of facilitating equal access to the courts.”

The court said that from now on, an official court reporter “must generally be made available” to impoverished litigants when requested.

Jameson was classified as a “fee waiver” case, falling under a longstanding state law that waives filing and other fees for impoverished people.The law stands for the principle of what Cantil-Sakauye described as “affording indigent litigants meaningful access to the judicial process.”

But the rule requiring litigants to pay for their own court reporter did not contain a waiver for indigents.

In San Diego, the fee for a court reporter is $431 for a half-day and $862 for a full day. There are separate costs per page for a transcript, and while there is a state fund that indigents can tap to pay for transcripts they request, it is capped at $1,500 per person.

The ruling will have ripple effects beyond the civil law courts, where Jameson filed his case. Only a relatively small number of indigent litigants end up in civil courts annually, San Diego Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Roddy said. The larger impact will be in family court and probate court.

“We are looking at this across all those case types,” Roddy said. “The ruling will have a sizable impact.”

He said the court will spend $4 million to hire 22 new court reporters to staff all civil courts, primarily in family court. There, Roddy said, about two of every three litigants is a fee waiver case now entitled to the services of a reporter.

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Jameson, who lives in the Sacramento area, could not be reached for comment. But Michael Shipley, the attorney who argued Jameson’s case before the California Supreme Court, said “it validates the state’s long history of providing equal access to justice.”

The case drew high interest — more than three dozen legal organizations and advocacy groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging that the rule be struck down.

greg.moran@sduniontribune.com

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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