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No transcript, no appeal: California courts face 'crisis' over lack of records

Kevin Rector, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

California's highest-ranking court officials are warning of a growing "constitutional crisis" playing out across the state's judicial system, as hundreds of thousands of hearings are held without a precise record of what occurred.

The problem is a shortage of public court reporters, the stenographers who transcribe proceedings, and state law that bars electronic recording devices from being used in certain types of hearings — even when a reporter isn't available.

Courts have tried to triage the problem by reserving available court reporters for the most important cases, such as felony trials. But other critically important proceedings — such as for domestic violence restraining orders and child custody disputes — routinely are going unrecorded.

On a daily basis, litigants are told they can either hire their own reporters — for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hearing — or simply go without a record.

The result, officials and advocates agree, is that poorer Californians have less access to justice. Without a verbatim record of a proceeding, litigants can struggle to defend their rights — including against abusers — and find it impossible to appeal rulings against them, they said.

"It is absolutely an access to justice issue," said Cory Hernandez, senior managing attorney for the Family Violence Appellate Project, which regularly confronts the issue in domestic violence cases. "Not having court reporters is disproportionately impacting women, and women of color in particular."

 

Last year, 332,000 hearings occurred without a court reporter or an electronic recording device in Los Angeles County Superior Court alone. California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero warned in a speech last month that, statewide, about 133,000 such hearings occurred in a single three-month period.

"We all want and need more licensed court reporters to be trained, certified and hired," Guerrero said. "But the number of certified court reporters continues to decline and it threatens access to justice — especially for vulnerable Californians."

Guerrero mentioned offering bonuses and better pay to recruit and retain staff, but said "devastating effects are already being felt by far too many court users," and that she is eager to work with others to find "practical solutions."

In Sacramento, where the issue has seemed intractable for years, a tense debate over the best path forward has pitted court reporters and their labor representatives against court administrators and justice reform advocates — testing the priorities of liberal lawmakers in the process.

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