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On The Money: California Spending Mandatory "Court Reporter Fees" On Other Things

AUBURN (CBS13) -- Struggling courts across California are laying off court reporters, unable to afford them, a CBS13 investigation has found.

One reason may be that the state Judicial Branch is spending millions that was intended to fund those reporters.

Those filing for civil court in California are required to pay a "court reporter fee" -- part of the larger Uniform Civil Filing Fee collected across the state -- but $6.5 million dollars last year went to other expenses, including basic costs like janitors.

"If it weren't for the janitor then the court might not have stayed open in the first place," said Zlatko Theodorovic, who oversees finances for the Judicial Council of California -- the agency that runs and appropriates funding in courts across the state.

It's perfectly legal according to government code, he said. The Judicial Council is allowed to take from the court reporter fund to make up for other budget shortages.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) called the reappropriating of these funds unacceptable.

"If you are paying for something, you expect to get a service," she said.

Placer County court reporter Pam Katros knows the problems all too well, she said.

She learned this month her job may be eliminated, as the county plans to privatize its court reporters for civil cases.

"It's crazy, what's happening," she said.

CBS13 has learned layoffs are happening across the state from courts in San Francisco and San Diego to San Joaquin, Alameda, Ventura and Los Angeles counties -- which have all laid off court reporters in the last year.

But litigants are still required to pay the court reporter fee in those courts -- and if they want a record of what happens, they'll have to hire their own reporter at their own expense.

Katros believes it could result in a two-tied system -- those who can afford access to transcripts and those who cannot, she said.

"It's not fair, and people are going to be hurt by this," she said.

The Judicial Branch blames Gov. Jerry Brown's budget -- which cut Judicial Branch funding 15 percent this year.

"We wouldn't have these problems if we didn't have the money crunch," Theodorovic said, adding that the agency only took about 20 percent of the total money generated by court reporter fees.

Because court reporter fees are mandatory, however, Ma believes court reporters should be the last thing to go -- ensuring access to justice, she said.

"People should care whether their proceeding is going to be recorded or not recorded," Ma said.

"It's embarrassing to me," Katros said. "To think that we've gotten to where we are."

The Judicial Council told CBS13 it plans to continue taking some of that court reporter money to cover other budget cuts and will continue to charge those court reporter fees.

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