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Court Reporters Quit, Citing Trials of Legal Life

July 10, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

The judge was there. The jury was there. The defendant, witnesses and attorneys were all there. But there were no court reporters.

So for the first time in memory, a criminal case in Santa Monica Municipal Court was dismissed and the accused released without trial because there was no way to record proceedings.

The incident late last month dramatized a continuing crisis at the court. Unlike their counterparts in Los Angeles Municipal Court or Superior Court, Santa Monica Municipal Court reporters are paid on a per-diem basis with no employment benefits such as vacation or sick leave, and some have complained that they were terribly overworked.

Because of these and other reasons, all the court's veteran reporters have quit, plunging the court's four divisions into a frantic scramble for ways to provide a record of trials and hearings.

Courts throughout the county and state have long been plagued by a shortage of court reporters--the specialized stenographers whose highly stressful duty is to take down every spoken word at legal proceedings and produce official transcripts.

The case that was dismissed June 24 involved a man charged with misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon. He allegedly struck a Santa Monica community service officer with his car. The officer, who was not seriously injured, happened to be the daughter of Santa Monica Police Chief James Keane.

The trial had been delayed two days while court personnel handled other felony proceedings. On the third day, when the trial was to begin, Presiding Judge Rex Minter found there were no court reporters and no one who could operate an electronic recording machine.

Because the defendant was being denied a speedy trial, Minter was forced to grant a defense motion to dismiss the case.

"It was pretty bizarre," said Jerry Gordon, head of the Santa Monica city attorney's criminal division.

"We were very distressed. It is not consistent with justice to have a case dismissed for lack of an ability to make a record." (Gordon said his office would file an appeal in the appellate division of Superior Court.)

Two Municipal court reporters quit earlier this year, leaving the bulk of the work to the two remaining reporters. By late June, those two and a newly hired replacement had also left, according to Court Administrator Gerrie Dassoff.

Since then, the court has had to make do with what Dassoff called a piecemeal approach: hiring an occasional free-lance reporter or using tape recorders lent to Santa Monica by Los Angeles Municipal Court.

At first, matters were complicated by the court's inability to find anybody skilled in operating the recorders--sophisticated devices whose operation requires special training. Finally, the court last week hired Briggs Reporting Co. to provide trained monitors to work the machines.

Minter also said he has hired a new reporter who will start this week, and the court continues to try to recruit others.

But finding replacements is difficult, several sources said, because pay, benefits and general working conditions are better in other court systems--and sometimes the workload is less.

"We were tremendously overburdened," said Roseanna D'Amico, one of the last Santa Monica Municipal court reporters to leave, after nearly seven years on the job. She is now free-lancing at another municipal courthouse.

D'Amico said Santa Monica reporters had to work 60 to 70 hours a week, laboring on transcripts outside of normal court hours, just to keep up and meet deadlines. Court sessions often dragged on past 5 or 6 p.m., she said.

Like many court reporters elsewhere, the Santa Monica scribes were paid about $176 a day. Unlike many other reporters, they did not receive benefits.

Judges Criticized

But for D'Amico, the issue went beyond simple questions of pay and benefits.

She said the judges did not seem to appreciate the difficulties of the job, such as the need for regular breaks. She said judges often handled their calendars inefficiently, prolonging everyone's schedule, and that her complaints fell on deaf ears.

"I feel we did the judges a tremendous favor by covering the courts during these several months, but they never acknowledged us," D'Amico said. "We gave a tremendous amount of loyalty to the judges, and when push came to shove, the judges never gave us loyalty."

D'Amico said she has sent a three-page letter to the three judges and one court commissioner outlining her position and urging better treatment for court reporters.

Minter denied that the judges were at all abusive of the court reporters and said the long hours are shared by everyone at the courthouse and are a symptom of a generally overloaded judicial system.

"If they work hard, it's because we are working hard too," Minter said. "We are very cognizant that it is a difficult job, a highly skilled job (that) takes energy to perform.

Countywide Shortage

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