Lois Henry

Sunday, Aug 19 2012 02:00 AM

Court reporters may be an endangered species

By Lois Henry

Don't look now, but state budget cuts are likely to eliminate a vital service in local family law and civil courtrooms -- court reporters.

I know, I know, state cuts are eliminating vital services all over the place so what's the big whoop?

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Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Well, part of the whoop is if you don't have a legally acceptable record, or transcript, of a court proceeding you have no appeal. Even if the other side is caught lying and admits it and the trial court still found against you, if you don't have a transcript you don't have an appeal. That's it. You're done.

The only legally acceptable transcript in most courts has to be done by a certified court reporter, a human one. Electron

ic recordings can only be made on lower level civil, traffic and misdemeanor cases.

Unless the state changes the law (and there are arguments to be made for that) to allow more electronic recording, you need a court reporter to protect your appeal rights.

Here's another part of the whoop. Rich people, corporations or government agencies (using our tax dollars, of course), can easily protect their appeal rights.

That's because if courts don't provide reporters, attorneys can hire their own. It substantially increases costs to clients, but if you have the money it's well worth the cost.

Those of us who don't have the money, however, will be up a creek, and you know which one I'm talking about.

Though several other counties have already eliminated court reporters in civil and family law courts, Kern County hasn't had to.

Yet.

Kern court administrators had sent notice to the Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents court reporters, earlier this summer that eliminating the reporters from civil and family law courts was under serious consideration.

It didn't happen.

The court system was able to make the necessary $7 million in budget cuts through buyouts so court reporters were spared, according to Court Administrator Terry McNally. If the state slashes court funding again next year, though, court reporters will likely be back on the chopping block.

There are 7 or 8 reporters in Kern County courts who handle civil and family law. Those positions represent about $1 million a year, McNally said.

None of this affects criminal trials, where court reporters are mandated by law.

Several civil and family law attorneys I spoke with were adamant that they could not do without court reporters and be able to protect their clients' rights, though they acknowledged it's an expensive service.

Court reporters earn a salary plus get paid extra by attorneys who request transcripts for their own use.

However, many non-criminal, more routine cases don't always need a court reporter. And outlying courts usually don't have court reporters available so attorneys are given the option of not having one.

If the Legislature allowed more electronic recording, which then could be transcribed by certified court reporters, that could substantially reduce costs, one attorney told me.

Allowing electronic recordings to serve as the legal record in non-criminal cases would also keep the playing field level regardless of a clients' wealth.

Other states have instituted electronic and video recording with varying results. Video isn't allowed in any California courts for this purpose.

Some attorneys said they wouldn't trust an electronic record. The equipment could fail, words could be garbled, microphones might not pick up mumbled words and the technology certainly wouldn't be able to stop the proceedings if people were talking over one another. Court reporters have the authority to do that.

"Courts need that human element," agreed Judge David Lampe, who presides over civil trials.

I would prefer to see court reporters remain a service in our courts too, but the reality is the state budget likely won't continue to support that.

If that's the case, courts and the Legislature must find a way to protect the rights of everyone, not just those who can afford to hire their own court reporters.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com The Kern County Board of Supervisors may see a few seagulls flying around the its chambers in the near future.

The Service Employees International Union Local 521, Kern County's largest public employee union, is handing out stickers depicting a seagull with a ball and chain on its ankle.

The cartoon is in reference to recent articles about allegations of a conflict of interest in the management of a county employee health plan and a report by the Segal Company that sorted through those allegations but which the county is refusing to make public.

"Our members and every taxpayer in Kern County has the right to see this report," Ernest Harris, SEIU's Regional Director said in an email statement.

Now that supervisors have successfully demanded employees pay a share of their healthcare costs, he said, those employees should have greater oversight of how it's managed.

"'Free the Segal' is an education campaign for our members to let them know about this issue," Harris said. "Our members stand firmly with the public in believing that any waste, fraud, and corruption in Kern County government must be stopped."

Managed Care Systems administers the county's largest health as an independent agency. However, MCS is owned by GEMCare, which, in turn is a partner to Dignity, which owns or controls both Mercy hospitals and Memorial Hospital.

Competitors of MCS have said that ownership structure is a conflict of interest as it puts MCS in the position of being able to negotiate rates with itself.

Some in the medical community have also alleged that MCS, which determines which specialists county patients see and which hospitals they go to, has unfairly steered patients to GEMCare specialists and Dignity hospitals.

The Segal Company is the county's independent health benefits consultant. It was commissioned by the county to address the allegations. The report was delivered to the county last December but has been kept under wraps despite numerous requests to make it public. Union to Supes: Release that bird!

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