State of emergency: Illinois court reporters head back to work

Court reporters in Illinois are headed back to work after the state Senate passed an appropriations bill that fixed a budget shortfall. The legislature and former Illinois governor changed the funding for Illinois’ court reporters in the Fiscal 2015 budget. An unintended consequence of the change resulted in a $17 million benefit and salary shortfall for court reporters, which led to layoffs, work reductions, and furloughs. The narrowly passed budget fix was a welcome relief for the state’s courts and the jurisdictions in which they serve.

Crisis in the courts

Court reporters don’t get much attention in the courtroom, but the justice system relies heavily on their ability to accurately capture every word spoken during a trial. Court transcripts form the basis of appeals and keep the judicial system moving. Court reporter layoffs and furloughs during the budget crisis caused a significant delay in court proceedings.

Each jurisdiction handled the budget shortfall in its own way. The Lake County Circuit Court utilized staggered furloughs to avoid laying anyone off. Lake County consolidated its court proceedings into one or two open courts. Reduced court reporter hours and court consolidation resulted in the continuance of many more cases than normal. Closed felony courtrooms and the ability to handle fewer cases resulted in monthlong delays in some felony court cases. It’s likely that the effects of the staggered furloughs will last for several months.

Illinois law mandates that human court reporters are required during child custody and felony cases. Illinois also has a group of speedy trial statutes, which decree that a criminal trial begin within 120 days of arrest if the defendant is in jail or, if the defendant is not incarcerated, within 160 days. Although not a common occurrence, delays beyond the deadline can result in a freed defendant and no trial at all. There is no indication that any defendant walked because of the two-week reduction in court reporter availability, but a longer budget shortfall would certainly have caused a crisis throughout the state and possibly endangered the public safety.

The appeals process is another area that would have been adversely affected by a lack of court reporters. When appeals occur, court reporters prepare transcripts of the original court proceedings. It typically takes a full-time court reporter approximately two to three weeks to prepare transcripts from the original trial. Expedited appeals move even faster. A long-term shortfall would have dramatically slowed the appeal process in Illinois.

The human toll

Court reporters in Illinois are state employees. Caren Rapinchuk, a court reporter in the Lake County Circuit Court district for 28 years, lost wages and risked losing health insurance and other benefits if the shortfall continued beyond two weeks. Rapinchuk said, “The last two weeks were stressful,” adding, “It’s kind of like you are walking in a fog.” Court reporters and officials throughout the state expressed relief after the Senate passed the appropriations bill March 26, 2015.

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