Electronic Recording in Family Courts Fails to Advance in California Legislature

Exterior image of the California State Capitol building in Sacramento. Taken from a corner of the building at a low angle, the cream colored facade features columned entrances on each side, with the building's stately dome appearing toward the top of the frame. The building is surrounded by lush green landscaping.

Jeff Walters/California State Senate photographer

A bill that would have allowed low-income domestic violence survivors to leave family court with recordings of their hearings so they could enforce court orders or appeal decisions died in the California Legislature last week, thanks to fierce pushback from labor groups representing certified court reporters.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not call Senate Bill 662 for a vote before a procedural deadline last Friday, effectively killing it. Introduced by Sen. Susan Rubio, Democrat of Baldwin Park, the bill would have lifted the state’s ban on electronic recording in civil family, juvenile justice and dependency cases, making it an option when court reporters were unavailable.

The judiciary is statutorily required to provide reporters in felony criminal, juvenile justice and dependency cases. But Rubio hoped her bill would address the long-standing shortage in family courts, where officials have struggled to find enough staff to cover proceedings, despite recruitment efforts and bonus pay. In addition to expanding electronic recording, the bill would have changed California’s stringent certification requirements that limit the applicant pool.

“This is an important issue for me as a survivor of domestic violence, as an advocate for victims and as an advocate of working families,” Rubio wrote in an email, adding that she would continue to talk with unions and professional associations. 

“My goal is that by working side by side we can address the workforce shortages,” she wrote, “while at the same time ensuring victims navigating our court system do not become another statistic.”

For four decades, unions have opposed most attempts by the Legislature to expand the use of recording technology, and this time was no different.

In a Jan. 4 letter to Rubio, the Court Reporters Board of California, which oversees licensing, wrote that “real time reporters were the most dependable,” and that “offering an inferior record to litigants is unacceptable, and measures must be taken to ensure a verbatim record produced by a neutral professional for all litigants.”

In 2021, the Legislature authorized an annual grant of $30 million to increase the number of certified reporters in family and civil cases. Yet the number of professionals retiring or resigning continues to outpace new hires, according to a Judicial Council of California report.

Despite offering incentives, including a $30,000 signing bonus, the San Francisco County Superior Court as of this month had 15 vacancies and was unable to hire any court reporters last year, said Court Executive Officer Brandon Riley.

David W. Slayton, executive director of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the largest trial court in the nation, said this week that the incentives won’t “make a dent in our 100 plus court reporter vacancy rate.” Since last February his jurisdiction has seen a net loss of seven court reporters, he said.

“The well documented court reporter shortage in California, coupled with statutory restrictions on electronic recording, amounts to an undeniable constitutional crisis, with over 330,000 hearings taking place in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County in 2023 alone with no verbatim record of what transpired,” Slayton wrote in an email. “This leaves vulnerable litigants in family law, probate and unlimited civil cases, many of whom are self-represented, without a clear understanding of what happened in their proceedings and no ability to meaningfully appeal.”

Anne-Christine Massullo, San Francisco Superior Court’s presiding judge, endorsed SB 662. In a statement the day before its scheduled hearing, she emphasized economic fairness.

“It is essential to find a remedy to close this chasm of injustice that fails litigants who cannot afford to hire their own CSR,” she wrote, referring to certified shorthand reporters, “while favoring others with the financial means to pay a court reporter to take a verbatim record of their day in court.”

Rubio’s bill was co-sponsored by the Family Violence Appellate Project and the Legal Aid Association of California.

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