A very interesting case was recently decided by the California Supreme Court this summer that may have significant impacts on IV-D courts throughout the state. The case is Jameson v Desta (2018) 5 Cal.5th 594. Jameson involves an incarcerated indigent litigant who attempted over the course of a decade to successfully bring a medical malpractice action regarding his medical care provided through a physician assigned to the prison. Ultimately, plaintiff’s case was finally set for trial. During a pre-trial proceeding held 10 days prior to trial, plaintiff was told that the court would not provide a court reporter and that if he wanted one, he would have to pay for it. The trial proceeded with neither party paying for a court reporter and thus no record of the proceedings was captured. The trial court granted non-suit in favor of defendant psychiatrist after opening statements, and this ruling was upheld on appeal. The California Supreme Court granted review to the Plaintiff/Appellant to determine if the trial court’s refusal to provide an indigent litigant access to a court reporter was also a denial of equal access to justice, in violation of existing law. This quote from Jameson gives you some insight where the Court was coming from, “…an official court reporter, or other valid means to create an official verbatim record for purposes of appeal, must generally be made available to in forma pauperis litigants upon request.” So what does this mean? The Court held that the Superior Court has to make available a court reporter, if it is requested, for all indigent litigants at no cost. Interestingly the Court appears to be silent on who would pay for the transcript of the proceedings when an indigent litigant requested it. The California Supreme Court, while recognizing the impact of budget limitations faced by California courts, determined that the importance of preserving equal access to justice through the courts outweighs budgetary constraints. In my opinion, the Court realized that its ruling would create a burden on Superior Courts throughout California, but it balanced the burden it was placing on the courts with an acknowledgment that access to justice for indigent litigants is paramount. This quote from Jameson furthers this notion, “Without an exception for fee waiver recipients, the policy at issue here places indigent civil litigants at a significant disadvantage with respect to the rights of appeal compared to those litigants who can afford to pay for a private shorthand reporter.” (Jameson, . at 622-623).
Notice earlier, I was referring to court reporters, but the quote also addresses “…other valid means to create an official verbatim record…” The Court in my mind is referring to allowing the courts to utilize technology to electronically record proceedings rather than paying a shorthand reporter to be present and taking down every word and then later providing a transcript. This would be a legislative issue/fix as of now it is statutorily required that a court reporter is the only option for courts to record the court proceedings. (Exception: The statutes do allow under limited circumstances electronic taping in some cases.)
One big issue that Jameson raises is how far-reaching is this ruling. If indigent litigants are entitled to a court reporter, could this ultimately be extended to indigent litigants being entitled to an attorney free of charge in civil cases? The same access to justice arguments put forth in Jameson would seem to further that position. It is unknown if it could go that far but it is pretty interesting to consider.
So where do we go from here? Will the courts raise its fees to pay for additional court reporters? Will the courts charge the non-indigent litigant (such as those similarly situated to Dr. Desta in the Jameson case) for the court reporter? Can legislation be sponsored that would allow the courts to digitally record all civil court proceedings? To attempt to tackle these questions and more, the CSDA’s Legal Practices Committee has formed a task force to evaluate this issue and identify potential solutions and recommendations that could be put forth on behalf of all LCSAs in California.