SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Judicial Council on Friday added an important amendment to the top of its budget priority list for next year in the wake of a ruling from the California Supreme Court that poor litigants are entitled to free court reporters in civil cases.
The council agreed to ask the Legislature for funding next year to provide people poor enough to qualify for fee waivers with court reporters, or at least a verbatim record obtained through electronic recording or some other means.
The addition follows the high court’s ruling in Jameson v. Desta earlier this month, where a poor inmate appealed a San Diego judge’s dropping of his malpractice lawsuit against a prison doctor. Days before trial, the San Diego Superior Court issued an order cutting free court reporters from civil trials, and Jameson argued that he was entitled to one as an indigent litigant.
The high court agreed, and on Friday the council moved quickly to comply with what some members called a “post-Jameson world.”
“While we don’t know the scope of that budget obligation at this stage, we know that it will become one,” said council member Judge David Rubin of San Diego, chair of the Judicial Branch Budget Committee.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said an accurate trial record is crucial for the appellate stage of a case.
“As we have seen, the absence of a verbatim record of trial court proceedings will often have a devastating effect on a litigant’s ability to have an appeal of a trial court judgment decided on the merits,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the court’s unanimous decision. “Without an exception for fee waiver recipients, the policy at issue here places indigent civil litigants at a significant disadvantage with respect to the right of appeal compared to those litigants who can afford to pay for a private shorthand reporter.”
Some judges on the council worried that asking for court reporters alone would hamstring the courts, suggesting that the budget change proposal the council plans to submit to the Legislature includes language allowing for some other means of recording proceedings.
“I think the reality out there is that nobody is going to court reporter school anymore, it seems. It seems we’re going to find ourselves with a shortage of court reporters even if we do allocate money for that,” said Judge Stuart Rice of Los Angeles, outgoing president of the California Judges Association and a non-voting member of the council.
“We know that in limited civil and traffic we can use recordings and there are other types of proceedings where we can’t. I’m not necessarily advocating that we switch to electric recording for all proceedings, but it is something that maybe we should be looking at as we begin to propose budgets that are years from now.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling does not limit the courts to in-person court reporters, and allows for “other valid means to create an official verbatim record for purposes of appeal.”
Rubin said the judiciary will probably consider other methods of recording in the future.
“I think technology is the way forward in terms of making the courts user-friendly,” he said. “There are many technologies out there that will convert voice to text. There are court reporters, which we are used to, recordings later transcribed, technologies that they use in hospitals now that convert speech to text immediately. We use it on our cell phones. There are a lot of things out there that I think are worth exploring.”
Rice added, “This is certainly not meant to say, ‘Hey we are now against court reporters.’ We just want to be able to make sure that as we move forward we have the ability to provide access, provide a verbatim record, by whatever means the future holds for us.”
Echoing his point, and perhaps anticipating resistance from court reporters, Judge Marla Anderson of Monterey County said the proposal shouldn’t rule anything out.
“Because then you don’t have a firestorm of ‘your intent is to eliminate us,’ and also we don’t live in an either/or world. This is an inclusive world that includes court reporters as well as any means of getting a verbatim record,” she said.
The council voted unanimously to submit placeholder language to the Legislature, with the qualification that it may change throughout the budget process.
Cantil-Sakauye, the author of the Supreme Court opinion, summed up the council’s action. “There is no ill-will toward court reporters,” she said. “It is a nod to the future if need be for the courts.”