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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

Recording devices provide an inferior record, opponents argue, in part because they cannot ask speakers to slow down or speak up or distinguish between speakers who sound similar, as reporters often have to do. Some claim relying on electronic recordings will produce inaccurate records — so much so that no record is preferable.

L.A. County Superior Court Presiding Judge Samantha P. Jessner said today's recording systems are highly sophisticated, using a network of strategically placed microphones.

"Any claim that the technology won't accurately and thoroughly capture the record I think ignores where we are as a society in terms of technology sophistication," Jessner said.

She said there would continue to be plenty of work for court reporters if the technology were introduced, including in transcribing a huge influx of recordings. The courts, she said, would continue hiring too, as they still believe that reporters are the best option — they just can't be the only option.

Shelley Curran, administrative director of the Judicial Council, which sets policy for the state's courts and backed the bill, said something has to give, as the current system is unfair to low- and moderate-income litigants.

Boudin said digitizing modern courtrooms may be inevitable, but warned of problems he experienced with electronic recordings during his career as a San Francisco prosecutor, including in misdemeanor cases where testimony was muffled or inaudible — problems a court reporter would have prevented.

"That's their job," Boudin said. "An automated recording system won't do that."


Hernandez, of the Family Violence Appellate Project, said all the arguments for why electronic recording devices should not be used are "just political" and "contrary to common sense."

Many domestic violence cases play out for years, before different judges. Survivors often have to prove a "change in circumstances" in order to get a new protective order or change a child custody agreement. If they are before a new judge, and they have no transcript of past proceedings to prove their circumstances have changed, they can miss out on deserved relief, Hernandez said.

Courts are required to provide reporters to many litigants who can prove they are indigent, but that policy is little known, underutilized and of no help to middle-income litigants who don't qualify and can't afford to hire a reporter, advocates said.

Overwhelmingly, the burdens are falling on women, women of color, LGBTQ+ people, poor people and people in rural communities, "so for legislators to not act" is a dereliction of duty, Hernandez said.

"They tell us time and again that they are committed to helping survivors and protecting them, but I guess that commitment only goes so far."

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