Funds running out for court reporters

Funds running out for court reporters

If the state doesn’t find a way to pay its court reporters, court cases throughout the state could face delays. As it stands, funding for the reporters is expected to run out next month, leaving courts scrambling to figure out how to stretch the remaining funds as far as possible.

“Unless the legislature and governor take action, the Court Reporter Services payroll account will be completely exhausted by April 15,” said Seventh Judicial Circuit Judge Kenneth Deihl. “Therefore, the Chief Judge of each circuit has been tasked with preparing and executing his/her own contingency plan in the event that a supplemental budget is not forthcoming.”

As the Chief Judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, Deihl must prepare the contingency plan for Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan, Sangamon and Scott counties. Though Deihl noted his plan would include a circuit-wide staff reduction in the unlikely event that a funding solution doesn’t happen soon, he said he is awaiting further direction from the Executive Committee of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges before he can implement it or release any additional details.

Though he remains hopeful that the state will be able to resolve the funding issue in the near future, Deihl said that, in order to ensure courts can remain open even in a worst-case scenario, a contingency plan may need to be implemented as soon as early this month. “This plan can require tough decisions, but I believe we must act responsibly to guarantee that we maintain continuous court reporting services,” said Deihl.

“Without a plan in place, we could risk running completely out of funds for our court reports in April,” he said. “This would cripple our court systems and have severe consequences in our criminal, juvenile and mental health cases.” State law mandates what proceedings must be reported, including felonies, criminal jury trials, juvenile matters, mental health cases and any time a judge interviews a minor child privately concerning family proceedings. “Otherwise, a judge has wide discretion about the use of his/her reporter in any other kind of court proceeding,” said Deihl.

In Macoupin County, each of the three judges has their own court reporter, who handles scheduling, answering phones, typing letters and opinions, performing other clerical work and serving as the gatekeeper between the judge and the general public so that no improper ex part communication (that which benefits one side in a case over the other) with the judge occurs.

“Their services are essential to our three judges in Macoupin County because we don’t have a separate clerical staff to turn to,” said Deihl, who took office in December 2006. By 2008, the county was saving nearly $100,000 by no longer using court secretaries. While some counties use court specialists who oversee a specialized recording system and transcribe those recordings instead of having court reporters, Macoupin County does not have such a system. “Most counties don’t have the monies for buying electronic equipment,” Deihl said, noting that not even Sangamon County, the largest in the circuit, has such a program, though Greene and Jersey counties do.

As state employees, court reporters are paid by Court Reporting Services, a state agency, using payroll monies provided by the legislature.

“A strong contingency plan must balance my optimism that the funding problem will be solved against the practical reality that the state may not move quickly enough or provide us with enough money to continue business as usual,” said Deihl. “It is still too premature to describe the court reporter funding issue as a ‘crisis,’ but it would also be foolish not to have a plan to continue serving our citizens even in the face of these difficulties.”

According to Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, the court reporter program is approximately $14.3 million short for the fiscal year ending June 30. In his budget address on Feb. 18, Gov. Bruce Rauner acknowledged the shortfall, noting, “Court reporters will start missing payroll next month, threatening to grind our justice system to a halt.”