California

Opinion: California has a compensation crisis, not a shortage of court clerks

Esquivel is a certified shorthand reporter and board member of SEIU Local 221, which represents courts/special districts and lives in Mission Valley.

Our justice system is built on the idea that we are all equal before the law, but when a “court reporter shortage crisis” was declared late last year, almost every bailiff in state courts across California signed a memo expressing their intent brought to seek changes that would undermine this basic equality.

Court officials claim that there simply aren’t enough court clerks in the state, forcing court cases to consider — and in some cases use — other methods of recording court cases, a potential threat to public access to an official transcript of those cases by the court clerk.

As clerks, my colleagues and I create a crucial, verbatim record of what is said during a court proceeding. We use shorthand and a specially designed scribe – a tiny computer-like device – and special software to create these transcripts. We’re certified by the California Department of Consumer Affairs and type at speeds in excess of 200 words per minute. Like elite athletes, we need training and practice to do our jobs and perform this physical skill at a high level, something few people can master. In a court hearing, we identify each speaker, correct accents and speech impediments, and ensure we all hear softly spoken words—something an electronic device cannot do without a human ear and an interruptible voice.

This record is critical for appeals to have an accurate word-for-word transcript of divorce proceedings, criminal proceedings, restraining order hearings and more.

Electronic records are consistently unreliable and do not represent equal access to justice. Records of court proceedings are often lost or not made at all when the software fails or a court official fails to start the electronic device. In addition, confidential conversations between attorneys and their clients are privileged and the recording of such conversations is prohibited. Can people be sure the machine was off when they talk to their lawyers during breaks in the proceedings?

If court clerks are not provided for hearings, the wealthy — those who can hire the best attorneys and pay thousands of dollars for court clerks to produce an accurate record of their court proceedings — would have an even greater advantage in our justice system than they already do. And people of color, who are already disproportionately impacted by our justice system, would face higher costs to access and harsher penalties.

Michael Roddy, the San Diego Superior Court executive officer, has stated that funding is not the problem of this so-called “court reporter shortage.” Unfortunately, Roddy refuses to spend the millions of dollars that the state has allocated to incentivize applicants and encourage reporter retention.

The San Diego Supreme Court last October received more than $2 million through Senate Bill 154, funds specifically earmarked to retain and hire official court clerks this fiscal year, and to date hasn’t spent any of it — nothing — during Courts across the state are now offering tens of thousands of dollars in sign-up and retention bonuses.

The San Diego Supreme Court lost four clerks to the federal courthouse across the street in the last year and many more to the freelance field, where a reporter can calculate in a day what a clerk makes in a week. Therefore, funding is the issue and the court should spend the money allocated as intended to promote fairness and justice for all. However, court clerks are not the only understaffed court clerks. Court clerks often sit in courtrooms waiting for the trial to begin due to a lack of court clerks and MPs needed to begin.

There are nearly 200 authorized court reporters residing in the San Diego area and 5,606 licensed certified shorthand reporters listed on the California Court Reporter Board website — more than three times the number of court reporters than court case judges — and are expected to more to be admitted later this year.

Court clerks often volunteer to recruit licensed reporters and teach students in local court reporting programs the skills to promote and sustain success in the profession. Unfortunately, executives, including Roddy, have exacerbated the situation with job insecurity created by the 2012 layoffs of 28 reporters in San Diego, meager pay rises and contentious job negotiations.

The San Diego Supreme Court clerks want to work as officers and keepers of the official records for everyone, which is why so many of us still serve the public in our local courthouses.

Executives, including Roddy, must protect access to services by spending funds allocated to San Diego Superior Court before the end of this fiscal year or the money will be lost.

As civil rights activist and MP John Lewis said, “A democracy cannot thrive when power is unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few.”

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