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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

Looming over it all is the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and other modern recording technology, which some view as a threat to thousands of good jobs and others see as a promising solution.

"It is in some ways a traditional labor, access to justice issue," said Chesa Boudin, executive director of Berkeley Law's Criminal Law & Justice Center and San Francisco's former district attorney. "The extra element of technology and AI … makes it a little bit more complicated."

What caused the problem?

Because of the vital role that transcripts play in the legal system, including as the basis for appeals, court reporters — also known as "guardians of the record" — have long been viewed as essential in public proceedings, like judges, clerks and bailiffs.

The hiring standards are tough. Candidates must pass a rigorous licensing exam involving grammar, punctuation, and legal jargon, plus transcribe 200 words per minute with 97.5% accuracy, among other qualifications. The requirements are stricter than in other states, and many who pursue the career fail.

As of 2023, California court systems had the equivalent of 1,164 active, full-time court reporters on their payrolls, according to a March report from the Legislative Analyst's Office, around 700 positions short of the needed staffing. But the gap is not entirely due to a lack of people qualified to do the work, as the same report showed more than 4,700 active licensees in the state.

 

A Department of Consumer Affairs report from May found that just 41% of surveyed reporters primarily worked in courts — and many of those were freelancers for hire, not full-time employees. The rest worked in the private sector.

Diana Van Dyke, a public court reporter for decades and a board member of the Los Angeles County Court Reporters Assn., blamed judicial system mismanagement for driving employees into the private sector — starting with steep reporter layoffs during an economic downturn more than a decade ago.

The fact that court officials have ceded reporting services for entire areas of courthouse law — like family law — to the private sector since only exacerbated the problem, Van Dyke said.

"The court created the very existence of the 'potential constitutional crisis' that they are complaining about," she said.

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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