California

Opinion: California has a court clerk shortage, not a compensation crisis

roddy is an Executive Officer of the San Diego Superior Court, overseeing the operations of seven San Diego County court locations and more than 1,100 employees. He lives in San Diego County.

Each year, the national court reporting industry loses 82 percent more workers than it gains. While about 1,120 stenographers are retiring, at most 200 will enter the market — an annual reduction in the workforce of 920 reporters. Already in 2018, the supply of active court clerks in the United States could not meet the overall demand. By 2028, the number of vacancies for court clerks is expected to completely exceed the number of court clerks.

For more than 17 years, the California Judicial Council has been sounding the alarm about the impending shortage of court reporters. The number of California courts has declined 50 percent over the past decade, from 16 in 2011 to eight now. As of January 2022, the only school offering an online certified shorthand reporting program announced its closure, further reducing the availability of training programs.

Court reporting schools have also faced sharp enrollment declines. It is estimated that there are currently no more than 2,500 students enrolled in any court reporting school nationwide. Low retention and graduation rates further exacerbate the situation. Less than 1 in 10 students graduate from school and become a licensed clerk. Given the current overall shortage of court clerks, schools should have enrolled at least 101,150 students in 2019 to fill the shortage in 2023.

Despite active and ongoing court clerk recruitment efforts, courts across the state are encountering a significant shortage of qualified court clerks, and the gap continues to widen as court clerks retire. In 2022 alone, nine reporters have retired from the San Diego Superior Court, accounting for about 13 percent of the court’s total current reporter workforce. In the past seven years, the number of actively licensed California reporters has declined by almost 20 percent. The limited number of people who get a license will be able to vote for almost every court in the state; Just a few months ago, 71 percent of the state’s 58 court cases are actively seeking clerks. In addition, federal courts also recruit the same clerks.

As a result of these bottlenecks, in November 2021 the San Diego Superior Court was required to prioritize the presence of clerks in criminal and juvenile cases, as required by law, and eliminate clerks in family law hearings to honor those obligations.

The average wages of current San Diego County clerks have increased 24 percent in the three years since the December 2019 hearing, when the court made significant salary and bonus adjustments. Some reporters received wage increases of over 40 percent during this period. Reporters’ salaries will increase another 8 percent to 14 percent through October 2024, when court reporters at the top of the scale will earn more than $125,000 a year in salaries alone, before accounting for bonuses, health and retirement benefits, and transcription income – for the reporters to be paid separately.

The Supreme Court has made numerous recruitment efforts and has met with the Court Reporters’ Union to discuss ideas for attracting new Reporters to Court employment. Among other things, the court proposed a $10,000 signing bonus for new hires, but the union instead proposed a $20,000 bonus for existing employees.

The crisis is not in court clerk compensation, recruitment efforts, or the management of the court budget. The crisis consists of heightened challenges from a stenographer workforce nearing retirement age, limited availability of training programs, low enrollment in the schools that still exist, and a lack of success for license examiners, which equates to a severe shortage of reporters.

As stated in a joint November letter from me and other senior officials representing 54 of the 58 higher courts across California, “We stand with our court clerks as we recognize and appreciate their value and service to the California judiciary, but we must acknowledge that we are faced with a shortage of California — and national — court reporters.”

Many other states have approved electronic recording to create an officially recognized verbatim record of court proceedings. While technology could bridge the growing gap between the availability and demand of court clerks, current California legislation severely restricts the courts’ use of electronic records.

As recognized by the California Supreme Court, “[a] The Commission’s 2017 Report on the Future of California’s Court System… provides an informative discussion of recent technological advances in the digital recording of court proceedings and the significant potential benefits, both economic and otherwise, of such technology to parties, courts and the Judicial system as a whole.” However, legal approval is required to implement such solutions.

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