Court reporters face crunch

BY SAM LANE | JANUARY 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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Tammy VanBogart is now one of only 18 court reporters working among six counties, including Johnson County.

Since officials announced that the state would have to cut 7.1 percent of its judiciary budget, four court reporters who worked among Johnson, Linn, Iowa, Tama, Jones, and Benton Counties were let go. An additional reporter’s hours have been reduced.

Before the cuts, VanBogart said, court reporters were able to work one-on-one with an individual judge.

“It’s put a huge strain on us,” she said. “Now we are working with numerous judges, sometimes never with the judge we were assigned originally. We’re working our tails off.”

Sheryl Culver, the president of the Iowa Courts Reporter Association and an official court reporter, agreed that the reduction has affected their workload.

“It’s just an extreme overwork situation,” she said. “It’s hitting everyone. We’re getting hit hard, but so are other departments.”

To make up for the limited number of court reporters, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus issued a supervisory order regarding the matter.

With the order, released Jan. 6, courts will now allow parties in civil cases to retain, at their own expense, court reporters under certain circumstances. In other words, if a court-hired reporter is not available for a non-priority civil case, parties in the case may pay for their own reporter.

If the parties agree to hire one, they must notify the district court’s administrator, who will then select a reporter from a roster including those employed part-time, former reporters, or those privately certified.

The order also states that hired reporters’ pay cannot exceed $250 for a full day and $150 for a half day.

While the change may be a way to provide cases with a reporter, some, such as VanBogart, do not necessarily support it.

“It makes justice available to those who have and not available to those who have not,” she said.
She has seen few, if any, parties use the option to hire a reporter, she said.

The Iowa Judicial Branch has been exploring other options for budget management. In May 2009, the branch established a committee to research digital audio recording technology as a method for recording in the courtroom. The committee obtained information on the cost of the technology, conducted site visits of jurisdictions that used it, and tested the equipment.

The committee found the total cost for the installation of mid-level audio/video equipment, plus its maintenance, was $33,998 per courtroom. Currently, the judicial branch pays more than $13 million to employ 151 full-time equivalent court reporters. However, officials say digital technology is no substitute for court reporters.

“It would be a mistake to get rid of court reporters,” said Tyler Johnston, a public defender in the 6th District and a member of the digital audio recording technology committee. “What we have found is that even the places that had a shortage kept reporters to operate the equipment.”

Court reporters feel the same way.

“In Iowa, the court reporter is the judge’s only support,” VanBogart said.

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