By the Superior Court of California
Each day across California, tens of thousands of court hearings are held. Lawyers argue, witnesses testify, litigants tell their stories and judges make decisions. What many people do not appreciate is the crucial role played by a court reporter: creating and preserving a verbatim record of those exchanges. As a chronic shortage of court reporters reaches crisis levels, the statutory framework for court reporting must adjust to the new realities of the reporting profession.
THE PROBLEM: There is a court reporter shortage in California – and across the nation – that has been long developing.
In 2005, the Judicial Council warned that, “since the early 1990’s, California’s courts have experienced a steady decline in the number of available qualified shorthand reporters. […] Additionally, the reduction of court reporting schools and curriculums in California over recent years complicates the courts’ ability to attract sufficient numbers of well-trained reporters. [2005, Reporting of the Record Task Force, Final Report, p. 6.]
Nationally, a 2013 study by the National Court Reporters Association projected that “Decreased enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters, combined with significant retirement rates, will create by 2018 a critical shortfall projected to represent nearly 5,500 court reporting positions.” [Ducker Worldwide, 2013-2014: Court Reporting Industry Outlook Report, Executive Summary, p. 5.]
In 2017, the Chief Justice’s Futures Commission Final Report warned, “National data show the number of skilled court reporters is decreasing. Certified court reporting schools have experienced smaller enrollment and graduation rates, which are declining by an annual average of 7.3 percent[…]” [Report to the Chief Justice: Commission on the Future of California’s Court System, p. 240.]
In 2018, the Judicial Council wrote to the Legislature that, “the state would […] have a gap of approximately 2,750 court reporters by 2023 if forecasted demand remains constant.” [March 29, 2018, letter from the Judicial Council to Hon. Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, Chair Assembly Appropriations Committee, re: Assembly Bill 2354.]
Today in California, only nine Certified Shorthand Reporter programs remain. In 2021, only 175 examinees took the licensing exam – and only 36 passed.
The result is a crisis in court reporter availability that has been developing for years.
THE SHORTAGE OF COURT REPORTERS IMPACTS LITIGANTS ACROSS CALIFORNIA:
In accordance with Penal Code § 190.9 and § 869, Code of Civil Procedure § 269 and Welfare and Institution Code § 347 and § 677, California courts must provide court reporters in felony criminal and dependency and delinquency juvenile courtrooms. Court reporters are not statutorily required to be provided by the courts in civil, family law, probate, misdemeanor criminal and traffic courtrooms.
And yet, many California courts do not have enough court reporters to cover mandated criminal felony matters – let alone the wide range of areas in which litigants need a record of court proceedings.
Over 50% of the California courts have reported that they are unable to routinely cover non-mandated case types including civil, family law and probate.
FUNDING IS NOT THE SOLUTION: There is no one to hire.
The Legislature provides $30 million annually to the California courts to hire additional court reporters, with a focus on family law and civil courtrooms. However, because of the decline in court reporters, the crisis continues.
Today 71 percent of the state’s 58 trial courts are actively recruiting for court reporters: Alameda; Butte; Contra Costa; Del Norte; El Dorado; Fresno; Humboldt; Imperial; Kern; Lake; Los Angeles; Madera; Marin; Merced; Monterey; Nevada; Orange; Placer; Riverside; Sacramento; San Benito; San Bernardino; San Diego; San Francisco, San Joaquin; San Luis Obispo; San Mateo; Santa Barbara; Santa Clara; Santa Cruz; Shasta; Siskiyou; Solano; Sonoma; Stanislaus; Tehama; Tulare; Tuolumne; Ventura; Yolo; and Yuba.
THE CURRENT STATUTORY FRAMEWORK INHIBITS CREATIVE RESPONSES TO THE SHORTAGE OF COURT REPORTERS:
With the exception of limited civil, misdemeanor and infraction cases, Government Code § 69957 prohibits the courts from providing electronic recording in civil, family law and probate courtrooms.
Government Code § 69959 and Code of Civil Procedure § 367.75(d)(2)(A) mandate court reporters to be present in the courtrooms – rather than taking advantage of emerging technologies that would allow the court to provide this service remotely to multiple courtrooms throughout the county, providing more services with existing resources while making the profession more attractive to young, potential court reporters.
Government Code § 69942 requires all court reporters who work in a court to be certified in California which restricts courts from hiring out-of-state independent firms to provide this service.
CONCLUSION: More funding is not the solution.
We stand with our court reporters in recognizing and appreciating their value and service to the California judicial branch but we must acknowledge that we are facing a California – and national – court reporter shortage.
This shortage will not be solved by increased funding. 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.
Every litigant in California should have access to the record. Ideally, this would be provided by a court reporter but when none are available, other options need to be available to the courts. We are ready, able and willing to work with all stakeholders on finding ways to ensure that all litigants who need a record have access to one.