California has cut $786 million in funding from state courts since 2008. That's the equivalent of 21 percent of the judicial branch's general fund support.
In the brutal triage required to absorb that level of cuts and still keep courthouse doors open, the courts have laid off an estimated 400 to 500 court reporters -- judicial employees responsible for creating the official trial court record.
That has created a small crisis. Under California law, court reporters are required to staff all felony courts and juvenile courts. The official trial records they produce are required for appeal. Increasingly in many rural areas, there are not enough trained court reporters to staff all the courts where they are mandated. Private parties involved in civil disputes pay high fees for court reporter services.
There is a simple, obvious and cost-effective fix to the problem -- switch from court reporters to electronic recording in every California trial courtroom.
A pilot study carried out in California between 1991 and 1994 found that the courts could save $28,000 per courtroom annually if audio equipment were used instead of court reporters to produce the official record. Courts could save even more -- $42,000 per courtroom annually -- if video equipment were used.
In the nearly 20 years since that study was conducted, the technology for electronic recording has improved dramatically, likely bringing down costs and improving quality.
For the past decade, the California legislative analyst's office has recommended that courts switch to electronic recording. Once fully implemented, the LAO estimates, courts could save $100 million a year.
Even though their numbers have dwindled, the powerful court reporters lobby has blocked this reform for decades.
Court reporters are a strange hybrid of government employee and private entrepreneur.
Even though they are paid by the court to make the official court record, once that record is produced, they own it. The court or the parties involved in litigation have to purchase it from them at a price (85 cents per 100 words) set in statute.
California courts spend $24 million to purchase trial court transcripts from their paid employees.
The union that represents court reporters argues that these trained stenographers are cheaper and more reliable and accurate than electronic recordings. Strong evidence and real court experience dispute that.
The California Supreme Court and appellate courts use nothing but electronic recording devices, with no significant concerns about reliability and accuracy.
They work well in the limited number of trial courts where they are allowed in California as well, for misdemeanors, infractions and minor civil cases. Forty-six of the 50 states use some form of electronic recording, many of them primarily and some exclusively. Federal courts use electronic recording.
Faced with massive budget cuts, trial courts in California are reeling. Access to justice is threatened. A cost-effective switch from court reporters to electronic recording devices is long overdue.