Monday, September 10, 2012

Stenographers to be cut from some San Diego Superior Court courtrooms

Justice slips further out of reach for lower middle class and poor people.

Stenographers to be cut from some courtrooms
North County Times
September 10, 2012

Important note: Starting Sept. 3, the San Diego Superior Court will close all business offices on Friday afternoons...

San Diego Superior Court officials said that by Nov. 1, budget cuts will force them to stop providing stenographic reporters in courtrooms that handle many civil cases.

And by January or so, court reporters may also disappear from some family law court hearings, where divorce and child custody matters are addressed.

Court officials will cut the jobs of 41 stenographic reporters, commonly called court reporters, who take verbatim notes of hearings. And without the reporters, there will be no record of who said what in court proceedings, which are already adversarial by nature.

Critics of the planned layoffs say not having a verbatim record troubles them, more so if there is no such record in the high-stakes personal cases, such as those dealing with child custody.

Without a verbatim record of the proceedings, litigants are hamstrung if they need to appeal. There will be no clear record to provide to the appellate court to review a judicial ruling. Also, having no record reduces a litigant's ammunition in a complaint about poor performance by an attorney or a judge in the courtroom.

So any party to a civil who wants a record will have to pay to hire a freelance court reporter. Can't afford it? Too bad. There will be no verbatim record of the proceedings.

Not everyone can afford to bring in a freelance court reporter, particularly those who are acting as their own attorneys in order to save money, critics said.

"The loss of court reporters in civil proceedings is going to put access to justice out of reach for average San Diegans. Shifting the cost of justice to those who can least afford it is an inappropriate solution to the state's budget problem," said David Garcias, the president of the local union representing the reporters at the local courts, in an emailed statement to the North County Times.

Even without court reporters, courtroom clerks will keep a record of rulings by the judge. But exactly what the judge said to attorneys, and exactly what a witness said on the stand, will be lost.

And forget about tape recording the civil proceedings for an official record. State law does not allow it.

Stenographic reporters and the service they provide will be the latest victims of the court's budget cuts, as officials look to reduce spending by $11 million this fiscal year, which started July 1. The courts will save about $6 million by slashing a third of the 120 or so of its court reporter jobs, said Michael Roddy, the executive director of San Diego Superior Court, which runs the county courts...

Eleven court reporters agreed to an early retirement and 30 court reporters will be laid off, Roddy said. Most will be gone by November. Other layoffs will probably take effect in January, he said.

"Court reporters play an invaluable role in providing checks and balances. These cuts put us one step closer to a two-tiered system of justice which offers transparency only to those who can afford it," said union board member Jim Partridge, who is also a stenographic reporter in the local courts, in an emailed statement to the North County Times.

Citing budget cuts, officials earlier this month shut down Vista's probate court and Ramona's small courthouse. They also closed court business offices at noon each Friday, and opened Vista's traffic court an hour later each weekday, at 8:30 a.m.

By next summer, local court officials said they plan to shut down small-claims offices and courtrooms in all branch courts ---- including Vista ---- in anticipation of deeper cuts in the fiscal year starting in July...

However, the courts are required to provide a court reporter for criminal matters.

Roddy said court officials are still working to keep the reporters in family courts as often as possible, citing concerns of local judges...

In about 90 percent of all cases in family court, at least one side does not have an attorney, usually because they can't afford one...

Court reporters use a special machine as they take verbatim notes in shorthand in the courtroom. Many of the reporters are also able to plug into a judge's computer to give the judge a real-time transcript of who said what. Many judges often refer to the live transcription during hearings, sometimes doing so as they make decisions regarding objections raised by lawyers.

In cutting court reporters, San Diego is following the blueprint laid out by Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, which cut court-reporter jobs in recent years.

Overall, officials say they will cut $11 million, or 5.8 percent of the budget. But next year, San Diego courts face a 17 percent revenue cut, with no reserves to help. Officials say courtroom closures and service cuts are required to operate the court system on a $157 million budget next year...

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