Providing court reporters to poor litigants becomes struggle in California courts

Six months after a state Supreme Court ruling forced local courts to provide court reporters in civil cases involving poor litigants, officials are working to hire scores of reporters while state court administrators are gearing up to ask for additional funding in 2019.

Courts are hustling to fill open slots to comply with the high court’s ruling. The state Judicial Council, the policy-making authority for the state court system, decided soon after the ruling that it would ask for more money so poor people will be able to have court reporters for their cases.

“This issue is very emergent and is going to have a very significant impact on us in the coming year,” Jake Chatters, a council member and executive officer of Placer County Superior Court, said at a meeting in July when the council said seeking the funds would be a priority in its budget request.

How much of a budget increase isn’t yet determined. But the council made it clear that it wanted the leeway to use the money not only for in-person reporters but also for introducing technological fixes, such as automated recordings and voice-to-text software.

In the past, such efforts have run into strong opposition from court reporters and labor groups, who see the devices as a way to save costs by eliminating positions. Court reporters also say the technology is not as reliable as claimed and often produces error-ridden transcripts.


For now, however, courts are faced with filling reporter positions, primarily for cases in civil courts and family law courts.

In San Diego, the Superior Court needs to fill 28 positions, said spokeswoman Karen Dalton. So far it has hired 17 reporters.

More than half of the 58 trial courts in the state had eliminated reporters beginning in 2012 as a cost-saving measure in the wake of the state’s budget woes.

As a result, litigants who wanted a word-for-word record of court proceedings had to provide their own out of their own pocket. Reporters can typically cost hundreds of dollars a day, putting them out of reach of many litigants.

Then in a unanimous ruling in from a case from San Diego, the Supreme Court said policies in trial courts that don’t provide court reporters discriminate against indigent litigants and violate principles of equal access to justice.

The ruling said court reporters must “generally be made available” in cases with indigent litigants who had secured a fee waiver from the courts.

The case involved Barry Jameson, a former inmate who had a long-running case against a prison doctor over his treatment while incarcerated. When Jameson was finally able to begin a trial against the doctor in 2014, a judge dismissed his case after opening arguments for evidentiary reasons.

Jameson appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego. But the court said it could not rule on the appeal because there was no official transcript of the proceedings to review. With no transcript, Jameson had no appeal.

The case ended up at the state Supreme Court, which made the ruling in July.

“Without an exception for fee waiver recipients, the policy at issue here places indigent civil litigants at a significant disadvantage with respect to the right of appeal compared to those litigants who can afford to pay for a private shorthand reporter,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

At a meeting after the court ruling, the Judicial Council discussed a decline in people entering the profession, according to a video recording of the meeting. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stuart M. Rice, president of the California Judges Assn., said at one point it appeared “the reality out there in the world is, no one is going to court reporters’ school anymore.”

“It seems we are going to find ourselves with a shortage of court reporters,” he said.

But Rachel Barkume, president of the California Court Reporters Assn., said that is not the case.

“There are enough reporters to fill positions, as evidenced by the 51 applicants for the less-than-30 positions available in San Diego,” she said in an email.

“There are over 6,000 licensed court reporters in the state of California, 453 of those in the county of San Diego. Some schools have closed in the last few years, but there are many online programs available, as well as community college programs.”

It’s difficult to know how many positions around the state will have to be filled. Yvonne K. Fenner, the executive officer of the Court Reporters Board of California, which licenses and oversees the profession in the state, said that although the board does not track vacancy information, there is clearly a demand.

“We hear the courts saying, we have vacancies,” she said. “We also hear there are shortages in some counties.”

Barkume added that technology alone is not really the answer. She said court reporters are best able to sort out when more than one person talks at a time, or when someone speaks softly or other problems that only having the “human element” in the courtroom can solve.

“Audio recordings and voice-to-text are inferior equipment to the combination of specialized technology and a live court reporter,” she said.

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.