By Kristi Garcia and Doreen Perkins
The Bee editorial on court reporting tells a tidy story that fits satisfyingly into preconceptions about government waste and powerful interests. There’s one problem with such simple fables, however: Reality is rarely so uncomplicated.
Let’s start in the courtroom. It is a complex environment, with multiple voices, often in conflict, with some conversations being privileged. What could possibly go wrong with a simple electronic recording of all this?
A lot, it turns out. A cough in the gallery, a passing truck, variations in volume, cross-talk, heavily accented speech, names and legal terminology prove surprisingly difficult for transcribers working from a distance. Equipment failures and operator error are widespread. The result? Inaccurate and incomplete records of judicial events that people’s lives depend on.
In the rush to modernize and save money, courts across the country have sacrificed the core purpose of keeping court records. For matters related to a person’s innocence or guilt, few dispute the importance of a court reporter’s presence. Wisely, California’s Legislature has recognized family matters and juvenile matters heard before a judge are, likewise, momentous and, therefore, require the best available technology: a technology-equipped, trained and certified human professional. Too many courts in California are flouting these laws, thus depriving families and children of the records they need to appeal any miscarriage of justice.
Meanwhile, after decades of experimentation and study, nearly every state in the nation has arrived at a blended system, with some electronic recording in less sensitive or complex cases, but preserving the use of court reporters, especially in areas where a record is of vital, life-altering importance.
The fiscal picture, too, is significantly more complex than The Bee acknowledges. Court reporters bring in $40 million a year in fees that directly fund the courts. Their licensing fees also fund transcripts for indigent clients. And the costs of replacing court reporters – regularly purchasing up-to-date equipment, maintenance, document storage, transcription and more – must be accounted for.
In a complex and fluid environment, human beings are the most effective and efficient guardians of that fundamental linchpin of fairness, a complete and accurate record. That’s why our two organizations, the California Court Reporters Association and the SEIU, will be working together to ensure that California’s common sense laws on court reporting are enforced.