Illustration by Marc Rosenthal
It's good for justice to be blind-but probably not for the parties appearing in court to be mute. With many civil proceedings across California no longer being recorded, however, that's increasingly the case.
Half of California's ten largest state court systems have stopped providing court reporters for civil proceedings, including family and probate hearings and trials; in those counties, staff court reporters now record only criminal, juvenile, dependency, and mental health proceedings. San Francisco's courts went a step further, replacing reporters in all misdemeanor cases with electronic devices. Statewide, more than 80 percent of civil court systems had reduced or eliminated court reporter services by 2012.
Recent improvements in the state's finances aren't expected to solve the problem, especially amid calls for updating the whole system. In federal courts, where word-for-word records are mandatory, judges can decide whether to use a court reporter or multichannel electronic recording. But at least a dozen proposals to allow wider use of electronic reporting in state trial courts have died since 1985.
For businesses and higher-income civil litigants, the cuts have meant only small changes. They used to pay a daily court reporting fee plus extra for transcripts; now, they must arrange in advance for private services. Jorge Dominguez, cofounder of Certified Court Reporters of Los Angeles, which contracts out the services of 60 reporters laid off last year, says the freelancers' rates match litigants' previous costs.
For judges, the situation is scarier. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard A. Kramer, who calls court reporting "the hardest job in the courtroom," says proceedings get tougher to manage when court reporters change constantly, and he's had to delay cases when parties forgot to hire a reporter.
In family courts, where roughly 80 percent of litigants represent themselves, lawyers say parties can't always afford to hire a reporter-if they even know to ask for one. And if they qualify for a fee waiver, they may not be able to wait until increasingly overbooked staff reporters are available. So there's often no official record-which the parties would need to file an appeal; Kramer predicts "serious problems" when cases get that far.
"It's horrifying to think that people are going through things as important as child custody with no record," says Deborah Wald, who practices in family courts across the Bay Area.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi says "the quality of justice has suffered" with electronic recording, leading his office to challenge results in at least two misdemeanor cases. He says the devices in use locally can't detect soft voices or capture two at once. And if a witness or the jury wants a question or testimony read back, it takes days instead of seconds to track down.
Ann Donlan, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court, says the layoff in late 2011 of half the court's 59 reporters saved $6.3 million the first full year it was in effect, when the total budget was $51.4 million: "It's not something we wanted to do, but it's one of the things we could cut, because it's discretionary," says Donlan.