Soapbox

Raising court transcript rates will hurt public

Todd Winkler is led out of court after his sentencing in December 2014. A transcript of his trial for murder would cost nearly $1,800, and court reporters are seeking higher rates.
Todd Winkler is led out of court after his sentencing in December 2014. A transcript of his trial for murder would cost nearly $1,800, and court reporters are seeking higher rates. Sacramento Bee file

In her case that court reporters should get paid more for producing transcripts, Brooke Ryan leaves out some key information (“California’s court reporters are long overdue for a raise,” Viewpoints, Sept. 21).

For example, she fails to provide any data on what court reporters actually earn. According to courtreporteredu.org, California’s average pay was the second highest of any state in 2012. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for court reporters in 2015 was $70,490 statewide and $71,410 in the Sacramento area.

Ryan did explain that court reporters also produce transcripts of trials, for which they are paid a fee. She fails to explain that under current policy, court reporters own this material. Attorneys, observers and writers must buy it directly from the reporters, and it does not come cheap.

A transcript of the recent murder trial of Todd Winkler in El Dorado County, for example, would cost $1,777, according to the court reporter on the case. For those who were not able to attend the trial, that is not chump change, especially for incomplete material. The transcripts prepared by court reporters do not include the text of 911 calls and other audio and video played in court, even though that information may be crucial to the case.

The fees from the sale of court transcripts, taxpayers should understand, come on top of court reporter salaries. To put this lucrative perk in perspective, imagine if bailiffs were allowed to own the benches in a public courtroom and charge journalists a hefty fee to have a seat to cover the proceedings.

The materials from court proceedings should belong to the people, not private individuals. The proceedings should be audio and video recorded in downloadable form, with the shorthand transcript serving as backup. We have the technology, but Luddite legislators lack the will for this and other key reforms involving transcripts.

If a defendant is acquitted, the trial transcript can be tossed after 10 years. As the recent Colleen Harris murder trial in El Dorado County confirmed, that can amount to destruction of evidence. Those transcripts also belong to the people and should be preserved. Both reforms are long overdue, and both would serve the cause of truth and justice.

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of “Shotgun Weddings,” an account of the Colleen Harris case. He can be contacted at lloydb@surewest.net.

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