Court reporters could fall victim to budget cuts - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Court reporters could fall victim to budget cuts

by Bob Waters

DES MOINES (KWWL) -- As state leaders look to cut budgets, laying off court reporters may be one option to help trim costs in the Iowa Judicial Branch.  Court reporters are the people in the corner of the courtroom recording the official transcripts during trials and other legal proceedings.

But those 190 jobs statewide might soon be in jeopardy.

It's one cost-cutting option that hasn't been discussed publicly but has been a hot topic at courthouses all over Iowa's 99 counties.

In a closed meeting Monday in Des Moines, Iowa's Judicial Council - made up of judges, magistrates, supreme court justices, and the judicial branch adminstrator - may recommend a study to look into the costs of changing over to an electronic system.

That has Iowa's court reporters upset.

Kristina Sickels represents nearly 200 court reporters across the state as executive director of the Iowa Court Reporters Association.

She said replacing certified professionals with recording machines will harm Iowa's legal system.

"The court reporters are there and they can see gestures. They can see someone nodding. A recording can't do that. A recording picks up different sounds going on in the courtroom plus you really can't be off the record with a recording," said Sickels.

Court reporters make anywhere from $45,000-$70,000 a year.

They pay for their equipment and software.

Sickels said it'll still take big money to outfit every courtroom with electronic recording equipment and someone to monitor those recordings - sometimes several courtrooms at a time.

"Oftentimes, in areas where they do use recording, what you'll get is it says inaudible. They couldn't tell what was being said in the courtroom," said Sickels.

"Right now, we're looking at everything. We're not sure of our de-appropriation for this fiscal year and we don't know what our appropriation will be for next fiscal year but we do know the governor is recommending dramatic cuts," said Judicial Branch spokesman Steve Davis.

Davis said the judicial branch wants to be seen as an essential service like public safety or corrections.

That would mean its budget would stay intact.

But court leaders are considering millions in reductions with options including layoffs, more furloughs, cuts to the senior judge program and merging court offices.

95 percent of its budget is salary and personnel.

Court reporters say they can help recommend budget cuts.

But they say electronic recording isn't the answer because it could lead to major problems.

"One thing I did hear that really surprised me was one where an entire court case was lost because the microphones weren't working. How do you re-create something like that?" asked Sickels.

Many of those who work in the court system are prohibited from speaking to the media about court issues.

But if court reporters are laid off, you'll probably hear an outcry.

Still, it's a tough decision that may have to be made.

Ultimately, it's up to the Iowa Supreme Court and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus.

The legislature, of course, continues to work on the budget for 2009 and 2010.

So we should know this month about any cuts for the rest of this year and next month about 2010.

But it can't be cured with just a raise in fees or court costs.

All that money goes to the general fund - not the judicial branch itself.

Online Reporter:  Bob Waters

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