State budget cuts have slashed North Carolina’s pay rate for court reporters, fueling what one judge calls a staffing crisis, strangling efforts to retain qualified professionals and making difficult what used to be standard.
During a judicial forum recently at the Charlotte School of Law, Superior Court Judge Bob Bell said the court reporter shortage signifies one of the biggest issues the state court system faces – a lack of funding.
“I tried a civil case where lawyers agreed to split the cost of hiring a court reporter so they could try their case in court,” Bell said. “That’s a function of the state government, and the state ought to be adequately funding the court system, and it’s simply not being done.”
Mecklenburg County trial court administrator Todd Nuccio said that the courthouse has spent the last few years prioritizing cases to determine which ones absolutely required a court reporter and which ones they felt they could “get by” with audio recording.
“We’ve made those adjustments over the years and we’ve been able to get by, but the point we’re at now is the legislature … proposed eliminating all the court reporters and then that was killed,” Nuccio said. “But the day that budget was released there was a provision, and nobody knew where the hell it came from, it just showed up.”
The provision Nuccio spoke of slashed transcript reimbursement for court reporters in half, capping their earnings per transcribed page at just $1.25, the lowest pay rate in America. After all the work and research is done, he said, that could amount to less than minimum wage.
“At that point we basically said, ‘Well, this is a problem,’ ” Nuccio said. “We want to be able to attract and retain quality court reporters and this is not going to bode well for the future.”
‘The driving factor’
David Jester manages court reporters for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. He says that statewide there are currently 96 resident court reporters (reporters working exclusively in one district) working and 14 rovers to fill in where needed. That’s 13 court reporters shy of a full roster.
Compensation is “the driving factor” in the shortage, he said.
“Our salaries are equal to or fairly competitive with other jurisdictions, but our page rate is the lowest in the country, by far,” Jester said. “Any other jurisdiction with a vacancy has more recruiting power than we have.”
Nuccio knows that all too well. Of the seven court reporter slots in Mecklenburg County, two have remained unfilled for some time now. He said that the two reporters who resigned—both of whom took similar jobs in northern states—said they were bolting for the greener pastures of better pay and stability.
Jester said other court reporters are hanging on, “hoping it’ll get better.”
This year, North Carolina’s court system lost more than $3.5 million in funding and only accounts for 2 percent of the state’s budget. Nuccio feels those are significant statistics.
“It’s this mysterious, unknown, least familiar third branch of government,” he said. “Kind of out of sight, out of mind — people assume it’s fine.”
Superior Court Judge John Bowers said funding is more of a “crisis” than an issue.
Nuccio offered that while everyone has taken hits since the recession, state courts are suffering “a death of a thousand cuts.”
“We’re slowly watching the degradation of the court system,” he said.
Nuccio said Mecklenburg courts have had to reprioritize previous arrangements to again ensure that there is a “solid record” of cases likely to be appealed.
“We’ll put the court reporters on the criminal trials and for civil trials we’ll tell attorneys, ‘You can hire your own reporters or we’re going to cancel the session,’ ” he said.
A ‘break-even thing’
In a recent case, Charlotte attorney Rob Wilson had to do that.
“The judge pulled us in chambers this morning and told us that there’s a shortage of court reporters and if the trial’s going to go forward, one option would be for the parties to the lawsuit to privately retain a court reporter and that’s the option we went with,” Wilson told The Charlotte Observer in September.
According to Nuccio, that’s unacceptable.
“It’s an access-to-justice issue and we shouldn’t be saying only to the people who can afford a court reporter that they’re going to be able to get a trial but not those who can’t,” he said. “We shouldn’t be placing that burden on the parties — it’s the state’s responsibility.”
The notion that live court reporters could be replaced by recording equipment has been discussed but doesn’t sit well with much of the legal community. With so much at stake, many feel it’s just too risky.
Nuccio said it’s a “misguided notion.”
What if there are dead spots in the courtroom? What if someone drops a book during a crucial piece of testimony or a chair squeaks?
“If your life and liberty is being put on the line you want to make sure that whatever is being debated is captured accurately,” Nuccio said. “We’re not at the point where the technology available is reliable and accurate enough to do what needs to be done.”
Jester questioned what the actual monetary savings would even be once the needed technology was installed, maintained and eventually upgraded. He believes it could be more of a “break-even thing,” and that’s before considering the cost of retrials caused by holes in electronically recorded testimony.
“Plus, I don’t think we would save significant money because the cost of the transcript would remain,” Jester said. “The hope is that the legislature this year will undo the damage they’ve done. If they do … we can turn this thing around pretty quickly. If they don’t, it’s going to get worse.”
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, freshly re-elected to an eight-year term, said that he and others in the judicial branch plan to work with legislative leaders to attempt to resolve the situation in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
Calling the budget cuts “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Nuccio believes it may get worse before it gets better. But the solution, he said, is apparent.
“We’re at a point where the public needs to understand, ‘Here’s the justice system that you’ve been given, and it requires resources,’ ” Nuccio said. “Here’s the level of justice you’re going to get with this level of resources. Is this what you want?”