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  Cook County has the largest unified trial court system in the world, disposing over 6 million cases in 1990 alone.

Uncertainty weighs on court reporters

Thursday, March 19, 2015
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Andrew Maloney

Helen Miller just wants to know what’s going to happen.

“We’ve all lost sleep over this. We’ve cried over this,” she said. “And the hardest part is just waiting for the word that everything’s going to be fine or everything’s going to be devastation.”

Miller, who works at the Skokie courthouse, is one of hundreds of Illinois court reporters who face an uncertain future because a quirk in this year’s state budget will leave many of them without the money to keep working consistently.

The shortage has prompted the state’s chief judges to come up with contingency plans to keep courts running if legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner don’t come up with a solution.

Many involve furlough days, layoffs or some combination of both — and in some circuits, they’ve already begun. Some involve asking local government entities to provide stop-gap funding.

Still others will rely on electronic recording devices that, while useful in the sense they provide an unedited record of events, are less-than-ideal because they require additional expertise to operate and are not in every courtroom.

“We have one county in our nine-county circuit that has that equipment installed, and we are going to have two reporters trained this week by the (administrative arm of the Supreme Court) so that that system can be operational on April 1,” said Chief 4th Judicial Circuit Judge Michael McHaney.

Without a budget solution, McHaney said, his Southern Illinois circuit will have to lay off 10 of its 17 reporters. The job losses will hopefully be temporary, he said, with reporters coming back to work by July 1, the start of the new state fiscal year.

But “that premise is based upon two assumptions,” he said. “First, that there will be a budget passed by June 30. And second, what’s in it? We don’t know.”

The problem arose after state lawmakers passed a budget for the current fiscal year that paid half of court reporters’ salaries through a different fund than usual.

Reporters — whose salaries are part of the state comptroller’s budget — are typically paid entirely through the taxpayer-supported general revenue fund. Money for the state’s portion of insurance and pension contributions, in turn, automatically come from a separate fund in Central Management Services.

But for the fiscal year that ends June 30, half of the reporters’ salaries were slated to come from the personal property tax replacement fund — but no allocation was made for the insurance and pension contributions, leaving the state without enough money to pay reporters their salary and benefits.

Rauner and legislators have said they’re willing to fix the problem along with other funding shortages that amount to a roughly $1.6 billion hole for the remaining months of the budget year. At times, they’ve intimated they’re close to a solution.

But no deal has been made, prompting an Illinois Supreme Court directive last week asking the state’s chief judges to develop workarounds in each circuit.

Chief Justice Rita B. Garman said that although the reporters aren’t technically employed by the judicial branch, the high court “is vitally interested in the issue because the court reporters are such an essential part of our system and there are a number of mandated proceedings that have to take place (involving the reporters).”

Each circuit’s plans are due on Friday. Even with alternatives in place, delays in hearings and appeals are likely.

“It will clearly cripple the courthouses,” said Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr., the top lobbyist for The Chicago Bar Association and a Cook County commissioner. “The court reporters are the backbone of keeping cases moving.”

In the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers east-central Illinois cities such as Decatur and Champaign, Chief Judge Daniel L. Flannell said his plan is to wait until April 1 before phasing in furlough days and layoffs for his 23-member court reporting staff.

He said the presiding judges in the circuit are also asking county boards if they will chip in funds to help pay for reporters.

One reporter, Flannel said, is due to return from maternity leave soon.

“We’re going to tell her, ‘Hey, go spend some more time with the baby,’ it looks like,” he said.

In the 9th Judicial Circuit, which spans six counties west of Peoria, Chief Judge James B. Stewart said most of the courthouses have some type of electronic recording setup.

But if a case requiring an official record comes to Fulton or McDonough counties while the reporters there are furloughed, he said, everyone involved in the case will have to relocate.

“They will have to pull up the clerks, the files, the lawyers, the witnesses and the judge and drive 40 minutes to an hour away to another courthouse so that a hearing can be held and a record could be created,” Stewart said.

Chief DuPage County Circuit Judge Kathryn E. Creswell said layoffs will leave her courts with one reporter to monitor 29 rooms that are set up with electronic recording equipment — but that person won’t be able to follow along and note certain events while the cases are proceeding.

If a party needs a transcript, someone may have to sit down and listen to a whole day’s recording.

Creswell said that without a budget fix, they’ll ultimately have to lay off 17 of their 27 reporters.

“It’s just been terrible,” she said.

Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans could not be reached for comment.

In the 14th Circuit, which covers the Quad Cities area, rotating furloughs have begun between the staff of 12 court reporters.

Chief Judge Walter D. Braud said he’s still holding out hope that lawmakers will come up with a solution to the problem.

“I’m hanging on my e-mail like I’m waiting to win the lottery,” Braud said.

But in Kane County, where every court reporter is taking two furlough days this week and two next week until a longer-term plan is finalized, trial court administrator Doug Naughton said there’s not a lot of optimism.

“We don’t think there’s going to be a positive ending to this,” he said.

Vernita Allen-Williams, a court reporter in Lake County and president-elect of the Illinois Court Reporters Association, said the group is still trying to raise awareness.

“We’re encouraging every single court reporter to look at their voter registration card and contact their representatives,” said Allen-Williams, who just came back from two furlough days. “Things should be buzzing now in terms of phone calls from court reporters.”

Miller, the Skokie court reporter, said she and others have done what they can to try and raise awareness about the situation, including contacting lawmakers and marching in the South Side Irish Parade.

But they’re still waiting.

“All our lives are put on hold,” Miller said.

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