BATON ROUGE (CN) – Court reporters in suburban New Orleans have been forced to prepare transcripts of indigents’ criminal appeals for free for more than a year, and “have been threatened with contempt of court and jail time if they do not continue to work without pay,” they say in a federal class action. “Many of the proposed class members are owed thousands of dollars or more in unpaid transcript fees,” according to the complaint.
The lead defendant is Jefferson Parish, which includes most of the suburbs of New Orleans. (A parish in Louisiana is the equivalent of a county in other states.)
Lead plaintiff Vincent Borrello Jr. has been a court reporter since 1999. According to his complaint, “On March 16, 2010, Deputy Judicial Administrator John Andressen sent correspondence to the proposed class members, among others, noting that: ‘Presently court reporters in the 24th Judicial District Court are not being paid for transcripts prepared for indigent defendants whose cases are on appeal. The fund that these transcripts were paid out of ran out of money in December 2009. The 24th JDC is current working on a solution to this problem and hopes to have a resolution in the next few months.'”
But the class claims they “should not be involuntarily forced to pay the costs of indigent appeals from that parish, which the defendants are required by law to pay.”
The other defendants are the 24th Judicial District Public Defender Office, the Louisiana Appellate Project and the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
Court reporters “have had difficulty being paid for preparing indigent appeal transcripts since at least the end of 2006, when defendants stopped paying for transcripts,” the class claims. Even when money for indigent transcripts does come through, it is seldom enough to pay for the transcripts already prepared, and the cost of preparing transcripts can be substantial.
In 2007 the defendants received a $50,000 grant to pay for indigent transcripts. “However, the grant money ran out again sometime in approximately October of 2007. Defendants started paying for indigent appeal transcripts again in January 2008. Again, defendants stopped paying for transcripts in August 2008,” according to the complaint.
Under Louisiana law, court reporters are appointed by the judges of the court they serve.
“They generally serve at the pleasure of the court, and are required to attend the civil and criminal sessions of the district court and ‘shall be subject to the orders of the judges of the court.’ They are required to take down testimony, objections and rulings thereon, and all matters which may be directed by the judge of the court,” according to the complaint.
The complaint adds: “The statute sets out the payment to court reporters for transcribed pages of the transcript on appeal. By recent amendment of the statute, enacted after plaintiffs and the proposed class members already had been ordered to prepare appeal transcripts and actually prepared other transcripts, fees for transcripts in criminal appeals by indigents ‘shall be charged to and paid from any fund established by law for the payment of expenses incurred in the defense of indigent persons in criminal proceedings.”
The class claims that “although newly enacted provisions of the statute allow for a $2 filing fee per case to assist in the payment of transcript fees, this is no indication as to how such money will be disbursed or when plaintiffs and the proposed class members will be paid.
“Additionally, there is no reasonable or practical expectation that with tens of thousands of dollars being owed and continuing to grow with new appeals being granted that the $2 fee could accumulate to cover these debts. But, pursuant to the Deputy Judicial Administrator and the Court of Appeal’s previous directives, the reporters are supposed to continue to transcribe these cases without compensation.”
The court reporters “have continued to provide transcripts for indigent appeals but have not been paid for their work, as agreed, since October 2009. The proposed class members have been threatened with contempt of court and possible jail time if they do not prepare appeal transcripts, even though they have not been paid and there is no assurance as to when or if they will be paid.”
The Public Defender Office is a defendant because “the Public Defender Office administers funds received from Jefferson Parish and other sources, and is responsible for paying court reporters, including plaintiff and the proposed class representatives, for transcribing transcripts.”
The defendant Louisiana Appellate Project gets its funding for indigent appeal transcripts from the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which was created in August 2007, “and administers the Public Defender Fund, which supports all 42 judicial districts,” and also receives funding from the Public Defender’s Offices from which cases originate.
“The Louisiana State Constitution guarantees that when any person has been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation or commission of any offense, he shall be advised of his right to the assistance of counsel and, if indigent, his right to court-appointed counsel. At each stage of the proceedings, every person is entitled to assistance of counsel of his choice, or appointed by the court if he is indigent and charged with an offense punishable by imprisonment,” according to the complaint.
The class adds that even criminal defendants who are not poor file for indigent status. They cite the case of the rapper C-Murder, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a teen-age fan at a nightclub: “In the recent ‘C-Murder’ second-degree murder appeal, the defendant, Corey ‘C-Murder’ Miller requested indigent status to avoid paying the costs associated with his appeal, including an estimated $17,000 for transcripts,” the complaint states, citing a story in The Times Picayune.
The class seeks specific performance, quantum meruit, and damages for breach of contract, breach of duty and unjust enrichment.
They are represented by Salvador Brocato III of Metairie.