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Don't sacrifice quality for lower costs

Tom Pringle


No matter how improved electronic reporting has become, digital or analog, it still only records noise: Words, coughs, sneezes, doors opening and closing, etc. It has not gotten better at making "the record." It places no priority on its recording; the loudest sound wins. Court reporters only record the words of those individuals designated to speak in the courtroom.

Then there is the issue of access. What good is a record if you cannot find it later? The access to an ER record is only as good as the log that accompanies it.

Here in California, the clerks have been identified as the individuals in the courtroom with the most time on their hands and therefore the logical choice to assume this important responsibility. Whoever thinks this has obviously never seen a real clerk at work. Given the responsibility and importance of the clerk's job, they clearly do not have time to be a court reporter, too.

There is also the claim that there is no substantial loss of quality. I think the litigants in Northwest Steelheaders v. Simantel, Case No. 99C 12309, out of Marion County, Ore., would disagree.

The proceeding, held in the fall of 2001, was a five-day-long bench trial. During the trial, the system monitors indicated that recording was proceeding normally; then it was discovered that only one of the five days was recorded. The judge had to grant a mistrial because no transcript could be prepared for appeal. The retrial - a two-week jury trial - was held in February 2002 at considerable expense to all litigants.

One of the states recently cited as installing electronic reporting without substantial loss of quality is Illinois. In December of 2002, the Illinois State Bar passed a resolution that includes the following:

"Further, be it resolved it is unacceptable to use exclusively electronic recordings to report proceedings except as a backup device to a human court reporter who is required to take a verbatim report of proceedings." The resolution passed by an overwhelming margin.

On the issue of cost savings, I adopt the sentiments expressed by the Hon. Joseph A. Kalashian of Tulare County in a letter he wrote recently to Sens. Charles Poochigian and Dean Florez, and Assembly members Bill Maze and Nicole Parra. Judge Kalashian wrote, "The Tulare County Superior Court has had experience in 1992 with electronic reporting when we were part of a state pilot program allowed to use electronic recording. Using electronic recording equipment in place of court reporters is being proposed as a way of reducing costs. This will not happen.

"The court would have to hire staff to competently handle the recording device. However, even assuming that the recording is done properly, there still needs to be a paper transcript because appellate courts require them, thus requiring additional 'people time' to produce this transcript.

"At the present time, trial courts do not have electronic recording devices and thus the courts would have to have substantial start-up costs (in the millions of dollars), whereas the present system does not pay for court reporters' equipment. Court reporters pay for their own equipment as independent contractors."

Permit me a court reporter factoid here: The statutorily authorized rate official court reporters charge for a transcript has not increased in nearly 15 years. That is no anomaly. Over the past 100 years the transcript rate has increased only 325 percent; the Consumer Price Index increased approximately 2,000 percent over the same period.

We are not talking about pirating rap music off the Internet here; we are talking about the record of proceedings in court. These are the verbatim records on appeal; there are times when someone's life literally hangs in the balance.

Electronic reporting does not provide the training and experience, the eyes and ears of a court reporter; it does not distinguish between a Marsden hearing and an Eminem ditty.

I still do not believe electronic reporting provides the quality or the access that the record deserves. I do not even concede that, when all factors are taken into consideration, and even in the face of the current budget deficit, electronic reporting delivers the "substantial savings" promised by its purveyors.

The record represents accountability of our system of justice to its citizens; it helps maintain consistency in the application of that justice. It is not the place to be sacrificing quality and access in the name of economy.

  • Tom Pringle is president of the California Court Reporters Association and a member of the Judicial Council's Reporting of the Record Task Force.
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