Court reporters disappear from courtrooms because of budget cuts

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Schools like Cerritos College lend steno machines to students training to become court reporters. But the Los Angeles Superior Court has eliminated staff court reporters in most civil hearings to save money after state funding cuts.

Court reporters, always easy to spot because of their distinctive steno machines, are disappearing from courtrooms but showing up in other places.

“Things have changed in the field,” instructor Vykki Morgan told prospective court reporting students during an orientation at Cerritos College.

Certified court reporters are required to be licensed. They must be able to type in shorthand - 200 words per minute with 97.5 percent accuracy. Other stenotype reporting jobs don't require certification.

Morgan has taught at Cerritos College for 20 years. She started her court-reporting career in 1976. Over the decades, Morgan said, technology has transformed the work and the economy has shaken the field. 

“There was a great need for court reporters,” she told them. “And then recently the courts have run out of money.”

Last summer, Los Angeles Superior Court saved $10.2 million when it shed from its payroll more than 60 official court reporters  to help meet budget reduction orders. Since then, the court quit providing court reporters in civil trials.

San Diego Superior Court in November laid off 30 staff court reporters and will only provide them in criminal proceedings and some civil hearings, as required by law. 

Governor Jerry Brown’s budget presentation Thursday for this fiscal year doesn’t look optimistic for the state judicial branch either. State courts are bracing for an expected $200 million in cuts from the judicial budget coming on the heels of $1.2 billion in budget cuts in five years.  As a result of budget cuts, 10 courthouses in Los Angeles County are in the process of shutting down.

Lupe McFarland had hoped to hear otherwise. She’s been training as a court reporter for two years and she'd hoped to find work with a courthouse.

“The situation being what it is, I don’t know if that’s going to be available, but yeah, sure because then you get benefits, benefits you don’t get as a freelancer.”

Morgan told the students there is still work for stenographers. If civil attorneys and litigators want an official record of proceedings, they have to hire a freelance court reporter.

But there has been confusion over pay rates because state law requires specific rates for certified records.  Affordability becomes an issue when a litigant can’t pay to have an official record made. Appeals need legally acceptable records or transcripts of a court proceeding.  

Still, lawyers need records of depositions; some police departments hire court reporters to take down officer statements. There are medical reporters and there’s a growing need for closed-caption writers in visual media.

“There are more captioning hours out there now than captioners,” said Ashly Priestly, who's worked two years for a closed captioning company in Iowa.

In October, video-streaming giant Netflix settled with the National Association for the Deaf in a lawsuit filed in 2010 alleging that Netflix was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act for not providing closed captioning for some of its videos. As part of the deal, Netflix has agreed to caption all of its videos by next year.

The settlement has online video streaming businesses reconsidering their closed-captioning options - and it's generated interest from court reporters.

Terry Irey is a school volunteer and a stay-at-home mom who's found a lot of time on her hands now that her children are old enough to be away at school and extracurricular activities for long periods of time during the day.

She hopes to start court-reporting classes this month despite the job outlook for courts. Irey said she’d probably look for work in closed-captioning or another area.

“It would need to be freelance or doing something that I’m able to do from home,” she said.

As she closed her presentation at Cerritos College, court-reporting instructor Vykki Morgan said costs and technology can't completely wipe out her line of work  “as long as an accurate record is treasured and regarded as essential.” 

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