BY NICK GERDA, Voice of OC
More and more court cases are going on without an official transcript of what was said – and officials warn it’s on track to get worse.
Court reporters serve a critical role in the justice system, providing a key record crucial for appeals and misconduct probes of attorneys and judges.
But local Superior Courts in OC and across California have seen a dramatic decline in the number of court reporters on staff.
That’s already prompted OC courthouses to stop providing court reporters altogether for misdemeanor criminal cases, civil lawsuits and traffic cases starting in 2018.
In those types of cases, it means people have to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars per day to hire a private court reporter who freelance or works for a private firm – something not affordable to a wide swath of people who have court cases.
Now, Orange County court leaders are joining counterparts from across the state in sounding alarm bells on where this is headed.
They’re calling it the “court reporter shortage crisis.”
OC’s top court executive says if it continues to worsen, the court will have to provide fewer and fewer reporters in family law cases.
“We’ve already made the difficult decision to remove them from some departments…and we’re now facing the prospect of losing more of them in family [law cases]”, said David Yamasaki, the chief executive of Orange County Superior Court, in an interview with Voice of OC.
The OC Bar Association president, Daniel S. Robinson, didn’t return phone and text messages for comment on the court reporter shortage.
The Legislature has now devoted $30 million per year statewide to help courts hire more reporters in civil and family law cases, he said.
But the court continues to lose more court reporters each year than it can hire, Yamasaki said, citing a dwindling number of court reporters passing the statewide test each year.
One out of every five court reporter positions at OC Superior Court are vacant, he said.
“We have 21 vacancies that we are simply not able to fill,” out of 99 total positions, Yamasaki said.
Statewide, only 36 people passed the required court reporter test last year – down significantly from 65 people in 2019.
“We have the resources to hire. But of course the number of people that are available to fill those positions is very very limited,” Yamasaki said.
The court reporters’ union says the issue is driven largely by the court’s stagnant pay for court reporters while competing positions in the private market keep paying more and more in comparison.
“There are approximately 5,600 active Court Reporter licensees in California – more than enough to cover California’s trial courts,” said Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, in a statement to Voice of OC.
While private sector jobs in freelance, depositions and closed captioning “continue to flourish,” he said, statewide “it is the market for Official Court Reporters – those employed by California’s trial courts – that has suffered recruiting and retention issues due to stagnant salary schedules.”
He also cited “the fact that the statutory rate for transcribing proceedings was not raised in over 30 years, the constant threat of being replaced with electronic recording, and layoffs that pushed Official Court Reporters into the more lucrative freelance market.”
In September, the union sent a letter to state judicial officials calling for opening up the $30 million in new annual funding so it’s allowed to be spent on filling vacancies and boost compensation for court reporters.
The union also says the court can already use its existing resources to help with the shortage
“A huge first step would be to staff the law and motion calendars, where on any given day 5-7 freelance ‘bring your own court reporters’ are lined up to each take a 15-minute matter and then pack up and leave,” Barfield wrote.
“The efficiency of having a Court-staffed Official Court Reporter in civil law and motion calendars would free up all but one of those reporters to cover other jobs in both the freelance and Official Court Reporter markets.”
A few years ago, Orange County court reporters protested over cuts to their health benefits, which they said were slashed in half.
In 2013, the court cut their court reporter employees’ hours from full to part time – going from 40 to 35 hours per week – and significantly reduced their healthcare benefits.
At the same time, the judges who oversee the court did not cut their own taxpayer-funded health care, which had an extra $1.4 million subsidy from the county government.
Months earlier, Orange County supervisors were given an option to cut that extra benefit, but decided not to after then-Presiding Judge Thomas Boris warned that some judges would resign.
When the court reporters’ health benefits were cut, more than 30 of them protested in front of the courthouse.
The court reporter shortage started about 30 years ago, according to the California courts’ policymaking body.
“Since the early 1990’s, California’s courts have experienced a steady decline in the number of available qualified shorthand reporters,” the statewide Judicial Council wrote in 2005.
“The reduction of court reporting schools and curriculums in California over recent years complicates the courts’ ability to attract sufficient numbers of well-trained reporters,” the council wrote at the time.
When there’s no court reporter documenting court proceedings, it creates a major challenge to appeal a ruling they feel was wrong.
“In the absence of a transcript, it’s very difficult for some of those proceedings to be referred to whenever anybody files an appeal and challenges some of the rulings,” said Yamasaki, the court CEO.
“Unfortunately in civil proceedings, that record is not available unless a plaintiff is able to pay for it.”
Traffic cases – which no longer have court reporters documenting what’s said – previously were at the center of a scandal that got an OC judge kicked off the bench.
In 2012, Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. was fired by a state panel that found he helped friends and family get out of traffic tickets without considering the facts of the violations or the public’s safety.
Now, Yamasaki and other court CEOs across the state are calling for a conversation on changing laws so “other options” are available to courts when an in-person court reporter isn’t available.
Yamasaki, who is a member of the statewide Judicial Council, warns:
“It’s important for us to have a record of all of our proceedings.”