NOTE: This story was edited to add responses from Riverside and San Bernardino Superior Courts Dec. 5.
A Nov. 2 letter from court executive officers across the state requests the legislature to allow remote court reporting, electronic recording and out-of-state court reporting to manage a shortage of workers.
“Without changes to the current statutory framework for court reporting, all courts will face the inevitable day, already seen by a few California courts, of not having enough court reporters to cover the mandated felony criminal and juvenile dependency and delinquency cases,” the request says.
California law prohibits remote court reporting and requires court reporters to be state certified.
The request says that additional funding will not solve the problem, because there is no one to hire.
Riverside Superior Court has 71.5 filled court reporter positions, and 14 vacancies said Marita Ford, Riverside Superior Court Public Information Officer. The court expects to have 89.5 positions as four new judges join the bench in January, and another 14 when the new Indio and Menifee courthouses open in 2024. Adding in supervisors and relief reporters, Ford said the court will need 116 reporters to fully support the court in 2024.
San Bernardino Superior Court has 29 court reporter vacancies, said Julie Van Hook, the court’s public affairs officer.
A Jan. 25 report for the California Trial Court Consortium said that courts across the state, on average, have 19% vacancy rates for their court reporter positions.
In the entire year of 2001, 40 applicants passed the California Certified Shorthand Reporter Exam, compared to a high of 309 in a single month in 1995.2005 Judicial Council report
Attorney Eric Anderson, who practices both civil and criminal law in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said by email that only one of his clients’ trial dates has been postponed due to the court reporting shortage, and that none of his clients have had to remain in jail for a longer time due to the shortage, but that he has heard of people’s cases being dismissed in other counties due to constant postponement.
In his civil cases, some of his clients have had to spend 20% more on private court reporters, when court-provided reporters are not available.
Anderson supports the court’s’ recommendation of allowing remote court reporting, and said he supports the courts’ recommendation of allowing out-of-state reporters only if other states allow out-of-state reporters as well.
He also feels that the state should allow electronic recordings.
“Plenty of states do not even require live court reporters and electronically record almost everything,” he said. “In some places, they have been using recordings instead of reporters for decades. Of course, court reporters would still be necessary for transcribing those recordings. It may be time to expand what gets recorded by installed recording systems (yes, that would require an overhaul of many courts to have the technology, but we are long overdue for that as well) and require live court reporters for the most serious cases.”
Judicial council’s votes
A Nov. 10 Judicial Council report made recommendations to alleviate the court reporter shortage.
The report is made by a 25-member group including Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, Associate Justice Marsha Slough, San Bernardino Superior Judge Kyle Brodie, San Bernardino Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Fermin.
The report said that many reporters are retiring or leaving court employment to work in the private sector. It recommended courts expand the pool of court reporters by allowing voice writing, a type of court reporting practice where the reporter repeats court statements into a mask that generates a transcript. The report also recommended, through a 20-5 vote, to use remote court reporting, and, by a 20-4 vote, to establish grants and scholarships for the training of court reporters.
They also recommended, by a 17-7 vote, that the California Legislature should amend the law to allow electronic recordings in all case types when a court reporter is not available.
By a 16-8 vote, they recommended that California should increase the use of electronic recording to protect a party’s right to appeal.
“Both court reporters and court interpreters play a vital role in access to justice within our system. While many civil litigators and well funded parties have become acclimatized to supplying their own court reporters or interpreters for proceedings, there is an unfortunate imbalance where parties cannot afford such services (and the court can no longer provide them). With sufficient technology and safeguards, remote proceedings have the potential to allow for greater parity and equity in access to reporters and interpreters, insofar as it could permit California courts to share pools of these talented and qualified individuals, potentially providing them to parties who cannot otherwise bear the cost themselves,” the report said.
In a 6-17 vote, the group voted not to recommend banning audio recordings. In a 7-14 vote, the group also recommended not to mandate court reporters for family law cases.
“Because the lack of court reporters and court personnel affects access to justice, we should return to the practice of ensuring a court reporter is automatically seated in every courtroom. To this end, create an aggressive campaign to recruit court reporters and court personnel by (1) increasing pay and benefits, including time off; (2) establishing grants or scholarship for education and training; (3) providing increased subsidies for travel, childcare, and other personal obligations that prevent employment,” the report said.
Both Inland Empire superior courts are recruiting to fill vacancies.
Not enough students
The number of certified court reporters has been declining nationally for decades. The request quotes a 2005 Judicial Council report that says California’s courts have seen a decline in available reporters since the early 1990s.
In the entire year of 2001, 40 applicants passed the California Certified Shorthand Reporter Exam, compared to a high of 309 in a single month in 1995, that report said. The courts’ request says there are currently only nine certified shorthand reporter programs in the state, and that in 2021 only 36 applicants passed the licensing exam.
South Coast College representatives said California’s court reporting certification exam is too intense, and that there are technical issues with the exam’s new virtual format.
California’s exam is the most intense of all states, SCC president and owner Jean Gonzalez said.
Test takers must transcribe a 10-minute conversation with four different speakers with 97.5% accuracy. Most states require transcription of only a five-minute conversation with two speakers at 95% accuracy. Some states, such as Virginia, do not require court reporters to take a test at all, so qualified reporters are leaving the state and finding work elsewhere, Gonzalez said.
“People want to start making money, so what are they going to do? Leave the state,” Gonzalez said.
The state’s Court Reporters Board transitioned the exam online during the pandemic, but technical issues during the test kicked applicants out and forced them to wait months until they could try again, losing income and delaying their career start, Gonzalez said. The test also discourages out-of-state court reporters from moving to California, and the freelance monitors administering the exam are not familiar with court reporting, she said.
Gonzalez said private colleges historically produce more court reporters than the community college court reporting programs, and the Orange college is the only remaining private, for-profit court reporting program in the state.
Four other private court reporting colleges in California shut down after their accreditor, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), lost certification in 2016, Gonzalez said. SCC had to essentially build their program up again to gain recertification.
SCC court reporting program director Yolanda Krieger disagrees with the courts’ recommendations. Allowing out-of-state court reporters to remotely work in California’s courts is not fair for the court reporters who have qualified under California’s exam, she said.
To improve the court reporting issue, SCC would like more collaboration and support from school districts.
SCC’s virtual open house in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s City of Angels program was canceled a week before it was scheduled, SCC community outreach and marketing development coordinator Christine Mantyla said. The school district’s coordinator for the program told SCC that she got in trouble for organizing the event because SCC is a private school, Mantyla said.
Krieger also said the court reporting exam should be offered in-person at least once a year, to avoid multiple retakes due to technical issues.
Signs of a problem
South Coast College reported graduating six students from their court reporting certification program in 2020, and 15 in 2019. In July 2022, 11 of the 44 applicants of the Court Reporters Board’s Dictation Examination Statistics came from SCC. That school’s tuition was about $13,000 annually, for a four-year program.
The non-profit Humphreys University in Stockton, two adult schools and four community colleges make up the remaining court reporting programs in California, according to the Court Reporters Board of California.
Multiple agencies saw this coming. The courts also cited a 2013 study sponsored by the National Court Reporters Association that predicted a 2,320 shortfall in court reporters in the state by 2018, and a 5,500 shortfall nationally. A 2017 report by the Futures Commission of the Judicial Council also said the national number of skilled court reporters is decreasing, and that court reporting schools have experienced smaller enrollment and graduation rates. A 2018 letter by the Judicial Council said 5,900 certified court reporters are licensed in California, and that the state would be short 2,750 by 2023.
Read the letter here.[/wlm_private]