Los Angeles Municipal Court officials have purchased 15 special tape recorders for use in the event court reporters stage another sickout such as the one that nearly stopped all court business last month.
The decision to buy the machines, which cost $4,000 each, was "necessary to place the court beyond the mercies" of job actions and to preserve a defendant's right to a speedy trial, George W. Trammel, former presiding judge of the court, said in a memorandum. All but one of the 110 Los Angeles Municipal Court reporters called in sick Dec. 14 and 15 in a contract dispute with the county.
The purchase adds to a growing controversy over the accuracy and usefulness of machines to replace court stenographers, whose ranks have not kept pace with growth of the court system in Los Angeles.
Michael Morse, supervisor of the San Fernando office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, said tape recorders in the courts permanently would be "a disaster" because they cannot ask a person to repeat inaudible words or play back testimony.
The 15 tape recorders are manufactured especially for use in courtrooms and have four tracks, with separate microphones for the judge, witness, prosecutor and defense attorney, and oversize digital counters that allow a clerk to note key points in the testimony and to play back portions upon request.
Richard A. Paez, who became presiding municipal judge Jan. 1, did not rule out the possibility that tape recorders eventually will replace court reporters in the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Such a move, however, probably would require a change in state law.
Paez said state law is ambiguous about the use of tape recorders to record felony proceedings, although it allows them in misdemeanor cases. Court officials will ask the Legislature to allow electronic recorders in felony preliminary hearings, which are held in Municipal Court.
Gary Cramer, a Municipal Court reporter from Chatsworth and spokesman for the Los Angeles County Court Coalition, coordinator of the December sickout, said the purchase of the recorders was premature.
"It seems to me that they'd want to have the authorizing legislation to use tape recorders in felony preliminary hearings before they go ahead and use them," Cramer said.
Cramer said court administrators are primarily concerned with saving money rather than the accuracy of the verbatim transcript. Court reporters are paid $176 a day for services in the courtroom, plus 70 cents for every 100 words they transcribe.
Court officials said the recorders would save courtroom costs, although daily operating and maintenance expenses have not been determined. Transcribers would be paid at the same 70-cent rate.
During the December sickout, recorders were used in some courtrooms for preliminary hearings that could not be delayed. Cramer said a transcript of a tape made during one of the hearings contained 16 references to inaudible statements.
Aviva K. Bobb, supervising judge of the Van Nuys Municipal Court, said she supports using tape recorders in future sickouts. "One judge did use one during the sickout for a felony preliminary hearing, and it's my impression that it worked satisfactorily," Bobb said.
Under a Municipal Court pilot program, tape recorders were installed for a year in two civil courts and one traffic court, said Richard D. Johnson, a senior administrative assistant with the Municipal Court.
"We did not have a court reporter's transcript to compare with the tape recording because they didn't want a one-on-one comparison," Johnson said. But he said the tapes were clear.
A similar experimental program in Los Angeles Superior Court has been an outstanding success, said Frank Zolin, executive officer of the court. Recorders were placed in five family-law courtrooms last year, and more machines will be used this year, Zolin said.
John Montgomery, project manager with the administrative office of the state courts in San Francisco, said Pennsylvania and Alaska use tape recorders exclusively in Municipal and Superior courts. Several other states, such as Massachusetts, use tape recorders in felony preliminary hearings, he said.