California Court Workers Contest Centralization and Machines in Think Session

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California trial court workers and court reporters on Monday lined up in fierce opposition to what they see as efforts to centralize the way courts are run and replace human court personnel with machines.
     The Commission on the Future of California’s was created in 2014 by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to find ways of running California’s courts more efficiently, with an eye toward economy and innovation.
     At the outset of a public comment session Monday, commission chair and California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan said no idea was off the table.
     “We know that change is hard and it can be scary,” Corrigan said. “Especially when you’re in the middle of it.”
     She added that the commission’s task was to recommend ideas to Cantil-Sakauye, and to give an informed opinion on whether those ideas will work for the courts.
     “Sometimes the most important aspect of any inquiry is answering why and doing so in concrete terms,” Corrigan said. “What would this new idea accomplish? What will it cost us? What are the potential downsides? What are our recommendations for weighing those competing interests? The goal of our work at the end of the day is to facilitate informed decision-making.”
     Court reporters from up and down the state sharply criticized a proposal to examine the costs and benefits of recording court proceedings electronically. The commission’s Monday agenda broadly outlined a need to create a verbatim court record, and noted that in civil and family court cases no record is currently required by law.
     The concept proposes possible statutory changes to allow recording by machine in such cases, especially in family court where litigants may not be able to afford to purchase the transcripts created and owned by court reporters.
     Brooke Ryan, a court reporter in Sacramento and president of the California Court Reporter’s Association, asked the commission to reject electronic recording.
     “Let me be clear, electronic recording devices provide a less effective, less reliable, less accurate and incomplete court record,” Ryan said. She gave as an example Sacramento Superior Court, where recording devices fail to pick up the voices of female judges.
     “Why would you allow someone’s legal rights to be jeopardized because of an obsession with low-level technology, technology that has proven to be ineffective time and time again?” Ryan said.
     Carolyn Dasher, a court reporter from Los Angeles, told the commission that her county’s streaming transcript indicated that some soft-spoken judges’ remarks hasn’t been captured by the recording device.
     “That would never happen if there is a live court reporter in this room,” she said.
     Kimberly Rosenberger with the Service Employees International Union said an electronically produced transcript could be a good supplement, but should not be a replacement.
     “Electronic recordings are often incomplete, inaccurate, the current technology is costly, time-consuming and problematic for a number of reasons,” Rosenberger said. She noted that transcripts for meetings of the Judicial Council, the rule-making body of the courts, are unreliable and costly to produce.
     “We fully embrace technology. We want to make it clear that it should be used supplementing our personnel not replacing them,” she said.
     Rosenberg also spoke forcefully about another controversial item – whether to centralize labor negotiations. She tied the concept to a proposal floated in December to bring court human-resources policy under the purview of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the San Francisco-based central bureaucracy of the courts now called the Judicial Council staff.
     At its December meeting, the commission said the idea had not come up in any of its subcommittees and that claims it had were based on “misinformation.”
     “We were told it wouldn’t be on the table. But yet here we are the following Futures Commission meeting discussing it,” Rosenberger said.
     She urged the commission not to change the current system of negotiating labor agreements, currently done with the state’s 58 trial courts individually.
     “The current system in place is one of the most well-researched collaborative and constitutional HR systems in the country,” Rosenberger said. She noted that while the commission’s proposal pointed to inequities in pay for court workers by county, it’s because court workers are competing with other government jobs.
     Debbie Pearson, an Alameda County Superior Court employee and local SEIU chapter president, said it would be near impossible to implement a one-size-fits-all approach, as each collective bargaining unit understands who it represents and the needs of the employees it represents in each court.
     “It’s pretty hard to keep track of one court, let alone 58, so I think that it does an injustice to the courts, the trial courts, to bring it under one roof,” Pearson said.
     She added that Alameda County’s collective bargaining unit was recently able to win a pay raise for the court’s workers by negotiating directly with the court to stay within its budget, which it would not be able to do if negotiations were centralized.
     One speaker, a former Administrative Office of the Courts senior attorney named Michael Fischer, said the commission should not be afraid to do things on a statewide basis. The demise of the Court Case Management System, a failed effort to create docketing software common to all California trial courts, had made everyone skittish, he argued.
     “The argument is that all statewide solutions are flawed because one was not successful,” he said, adding, “History is replete with examples of initiatives that failed at first, yet eventually became routine.”
     The project, criticized by judges, court employees and the legislators as a boondoggle, cost California taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars before the Judicial Council pulled the plug.
     Jerry Garcia, a court employee in Alameda County, compared the centralization of labor to CCMS.
     “CCMS didn’t work. I was a part of that. So I would just urge you to consider what is happening with each of our counties,” she said. “Each situation that’s different, the different people and the different employment that’s given in each county is different. I don’t think it would be justice to centralize it.”

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