Over the last decade few states’ courts systems have faced as many challenges as California. Courthouses were closed and massive layoffs occurred. In at least one court, judges took voluntary pay cuts to alleviate the pain and potential for even more employees losing their jobs. So at some level it was not surprising that providing court reporters paid for by the court in civil cases would be eliminated. That is fine if the parties are wealthy, but what if one of the parties is destitute?
The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that litigants entitled to court filing fee waivers are also entitled to obtain a court reporter without charge.
In response to a reduced budget, the San Diego County Superior Court had a “cost-cutting policy of eliminating court reporters in civil cases, even for litigants with fee waivers.” According to Courthouse News Service, an indigent prisoner had sued a doctor, alleging medical malpractice, but after a decade-long litigation process, was not given a court reporter for his trial although he had a fee waiver. After he appealed the eventual ruling, the court found that “without such a record, it couldn’t reach the merits of Jameson’s argument that the trial court got it wrong.”
Ultimately, the California Supreme Court found that this rule violated the policy of equal access to justice embodied in California law, explaining, “The challenged court policy creates the type of restriction of meaningful access to the civil judicial process that the relevant California in forma pauperis precedents and legislative policy render impermissible.”
San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Peter Deddeh responded to the ruling, “We are currently reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision and will take all steps to implement it. Due to severe budget cuts over the past several years, our court was forced to make the difficult decision to remove court reporters from cases where their services were not legally mandated.”