Courts Statewide Deal With Shortage Of Court Reporters
This summer, lawmakers cut more than $3.5 million from the state court system. Since 2009, more than $133 million has been cut from the judicial branch and more than 600 positions have been eliminated.
These cuts mean local courthouses are underfunded and overworked, says Todd Nuccio. He's the trial court administrator for Mecklenburg County:
"Yes, the work gets done. But the question is: could we be doing so much more? Could we be doing so much better? And the answer is clearly yes."
But sometimes, the work doesn’t get done. Trials across the state are being canceled or postponed because of a shortage of court reporters caused by those budget cuts.
Defendants and plaintiffs are waiting outside Courtroom 6150 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. It's fifteen minutes before the doors open. And there's nothing unusual about this scene. Except for maybe Carolyn Kostecki.
"I was surprised this morning when we got the call, because my first comment was, 'Well, don't they have a court reporter? You know, state court reporter?'"
Kostecki has been a private court reporter for over 28 years. And this is the first time she has ever been called in to cover a trial. The reason she's here is because Mecklenburg County is short on court reporters.
There's usually seven, but two left for higher paying jobs.
Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio says that's because of a 50 percent cut in pay. They used to make $2.50 per page of a transcript. Now, it's $1.25 per page.
"And that page rate takes into consideration the time it takes to do the research, to verify the transcript and it's less than minimum wage basically when you price it out," Nuccio says.
What this means for you, is that you may have to start paying for something that the state is supposed to provide. Attorney Rob Wilson represents the defendant in the personal injury lawsuit that Carolyn Kostecki is documenting.
"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 says.
Another option was postponing the trial for a few months, but neither side wanted to do that. So they split the cost and hired Kostecki for $135 a day.
This kind of scene is playing out across the state.
Trish Puett is the judicial assistant at the Gaston County Courthouse. She says the shortage creates a backlog and delays in her courthouse. Two court sessions have had to be canceled this summer because of it.
"It's just a waste of court time and resources and it's really frustrating," Puett says.
Court administrators in Cabarrus, Brunswick, Forsyth and Iredell counties also report having to postpone or cancel court sessions because of a shortage of court reporters.
Not all counties let parties hire a court reporter. Todd Nuccio, the Mecklenburg County Trial Court administrator, understands. It adds to court fees, which are already creating a two-tiered system.
"If only the people who can afford to come to the court system are the ones that get access to justice, you know that's not equitable, that's not fair, impartial, judicial justice," Nuccio says.
To make up for the shortage, lawmakers have been pushing for digital recorders, but trial court administrators say that's a last resort.
"Our reporters have taken in juvenile hearings as extra work," Puett says. "And there are so many times, so many parts, during these recordings that they can't make heads or tails out of what has been recorded and that's just not acceptable in Superior Court."
Judge John Smith is head of the state office that oversees administrative services for the court system. He says he doesn't want to get rid of court reporters, but he thinks there can be a "gradual transition." He'd like to use court reporters for complicated cases and digital recordings for more routine cases.