The unanimous decision found San Diego County Superior Court’s cost-cutting policy of eliminating court reporters in civil cases, even for litigants with fee waivers, incompatible with legislative policy on access to justice and the general principles of case law including Martin v. Superior Court, a 1917 decision giving the courts the power to waive fees for indigent civil litigants.
“By precluding an indigent litigant from obtaining the attendance of an official court reporter (to which the litigant would be entitled without payment of a fee), while at the same time preserving the right of financially able litigants to obtain an officially recognized pro tempore court reporter, the challenged court policy creates the type of restriction of meaningful access to the civil judicial process that the relevant California in forma pauperis precedents and legislative policy render impermissible,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Accordingly, we conclude that the court policy in question is invalid as applied to plaintiff and other fee waiver recipients, and that an official court reporter, or other valid means to create an official verbatim record for purposes of appeal, must generally be made available to in forma pauperis litigants upon request.”
Michael Shipley, who argued before the California Supreme Court on behalf of prison inmate Barry Jameson who brought the underlying lawsuit in 2002, said, “I practice in state court all the time for nonindigent litigants and we’re all sensitive to the fact that the courts don’t have unlimited amounts of money. But the court was clear that the solution to that problem cannot exist to deny access to justice for poor litigants.”
Jameson had sued Dr. Taddese Desta in San Diego Superior Court for allegedly failing to properly treat his hepatitis while he was incarcerated at the Richard Donovan Correctional Facility.
Over the next decade, the trial court dismissed Jameson’s medical malpractice action three times, and each time the appellate court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. When it came time to go to trial in 2014, Jameson – then without an attorney – was not provided with a court reporter despite having a fee waiver.
Shipley said he saw Jameson’s case as a civil rights issue. “Access to justice is a huge civil rights issue and we had 40 different organizations that either filed or joined amicus briefs because this issue was affecting in a negative way all kinds of people’s rights to petition the government for redress of their grievances. It affects prisoners filing civil rights cases and it has a huge impact on family law cases,” he said. “A large percentage of people filing family law cases are not represented by attorneys. That’s one place where the effects of these policies were really harming people.”
Legal Aid Association of California executive director Salena Copeland, whose organization filed an amicus brief in the case, said there’s really no adequate substitute for a full and accurate transcript in an appeal.