A shortage of court reporters in South Carolina continues to cause court delays throughout the state, costing taxpayers time and money.
Ginny Jones, the public information director for the South Carolina Judicial Department, said in a recent email that 36 of the 130 court reporter positions in the state’s family and circuit courts remain open.
Jones, speaking on behalf of Interim South Carolina Court Administration Director Tonnya Kohn, said that the problem is the result of a shortage of people entering the profession as older reporters retire.
She said that the organization is actively recruiting new reporters by publishing ads on their website along with instructions about how to become a court reporter.
‘A broken system’
However, some court reporters in the state say the problem has more to do with low pay and unfavorable work conditions, made worse by the shortage.
“I think they need to fix the way they, in my opinion, are wasting a lot of taxpayers’ money by sending court reporters out of the circuit they were hired to work in,” said South Carolina Court Reporters Association President Valerie McFarland.
McFarland said that the court reporters she knows who work for the state make less money while working twice as hard. She also said disorganization plays a role in the burden.
“I’ve heard stories where a court reporter was sent an hour and twenty minutes from Columbia to Florence before getting called back and sent elsewhere,” she said.
In McFarland’s opinion, better pay and treatment of the state’s current workers would go a long way towards filling the vacancies.
“There’s plenty of court reporters that would love to be on board with the state and work in the court system, but … because of the way that they don’t take care of [them], they’re leaving and all going out and freelancing,” she said.
A freelancer’s perspective
Rebecca Bazzle worked as a court reporter in the state court system for 25 years. She said while she retained her passion for court reporting, she got out after the work culture around her changed for the worse.
“Things changed drastically from the time I started til the time I left,” she said. “As the system grew, more judges came in, and less court reporters were hired.”
She said that while North Carolina and Georgia began paying higher salaries to court reporters, pay in South Carolina stayed the same. All the while the amount of work continued to increase.
“I didn’t want to stay because it wasn’t a place where I could get the job done comfortably without having to work the majority of my time away from the courthouse,” she said. “That’s where court reporters are today, spending every waking hour on that job trying to do the required work. I decided to leave that and have been working as a freelance reporter since.”
She said that as a freelance worker, she’s not under the same kinds of pressures that state employees have to endure.
“I have more control over my schedule, and can bring in others to help,” she said. “I have a small firm, I networked and if I get overwhelmed I have the opportunity to call in someone to help. I can farm out work to others. There’s more control there.”
Bazzle said that other South Carolina reporters have been poached by better pay and benefits in Georgia and North Carolina.
“We’ve lost them to North Carolina and Georgia because of a better work environment,” she said.
‘Trying to do away with court reporters’
To make up for the shortage caused by the losses, Chief Justice Donald Beatty signed an administrative order in January allowing certain courts in the state to use digital recording devices in lieu of court reporters.
Jones said that five counties in the state have begun using the devices and that five more will begin using them by the end of the year.
So far, the recording technology is being used in Anderson, Richland, Sumter, Greenville and Dorchester counties, in both the family and the circuit courts.
McFarland said some court reporters feel threatened by the use of the new technology.
“Some feel they’re trying to do electronic transcripts to do away with court reporters,” she said. “They’re going to find that’s not going to work. Who’s going to certify those transcripts? What if there’s three people talking at once? Who’s going to say who was who? The electronic recorders can’t do it, because there’s not somebody in the courtroom to tell them. That’s our job.”
Jones emphasized that the digital recorders are not an attempt to replace court reporters, but rather, placeholders to keep the courts from stalling while the state looks for qualified workers to fill the open positions.
“We view digital recording as a supplement to court reporting,” she said. “It has never replaced an existing court reporter, nor do we intend for it to.”
Bazzle said that the money spent on digital technologies might be better spent on hiring and retaining proper court reporters.
“They have shortages nationwide, but nothing as drastic as in South Carolina,” she said. “If they would put the effort into studying to see what they could do about being competitive with salaries, it’d help a lot.”
Is a lack of training to blame?
The number of court reporter vacancies hasn’t changed much since January when the Associated Press reported that over 25 percent of the existing positions were open.
Jones said part of the problem is a lack of training available in the state for new reporters.
“The closure of training programs at state technical colleges has resulted in a smaller pool of applicants,” she said. In addition, she said, fewer people have interest in entering the profession.
McFarland agreed, saying that over 90 percent of her colleagues are over the age of 40.
“We need younger people coming in, younger adults coming in to make this a career,” she said.
Jennifer Thompson, owner of Thompson Court Reporting in Columbia said in a Facebook post that even qualified applicants sometimes have trouble getting jobs working for the state.
“I’ve had many of my highly-qualified students try to get jobs with State upon completion of the program, only to be sent away,” she said.
McFarland said while she received an offer to work for the state when she first started, it only came after weeks of calls and didn’t offer nearly enough money to make the job worthwhile.
“I finally started burning up their phone, saying I’m a court reporter, ready to work, not getting anything back,” she said. “When I did, I was in Aiken … I’m not opposed to driving an hour to work, but they gave me the opportunity to work in five locations.”
She said that each location offered was a daily two or three hour one-way drive, and the state refused to pay her travel expenses. In addition, the jobs paid thousands less than she was accustomed to making as a freelance reporter.
Instead, she chose to take a job working in Georgia, where she could make more money, while being allowed to stay with a specific judge, always within a 75-mile round trip of her house.
“In South Carolina, you may be assigned to a judge, but you may not end up working with that judge,” she said. “I’ve been working for my judge for a while now. I love knowing where I’m going to be, where we’re going to be. In South Carolina they don’t know what their schedule is going to be.”
While Jones said the court administration is working to fill the positions, McFarland and Bazzle said that major changes are required beyond filling the existing positions.
For starters, McFarland said that court reporters need to be treated with more respect and the administration needs to be held more accountable.
“They’re scared to death,” she said. “They cannot say anything because there’s retaliation from the court administration. If any of these people say anything to court administration about being overworked, they are denied vacation time … it’s very broken and they’re miserable.”
Bazzle said that the overwork leads to lower quality transcripts and that digital recordings are even less accurate.
“I hate to see things go down the way they have,” she said. “Court reporting is my passion … Hearing about the things that are going on, where there are times when no court reporters are available … You’re dealing with matters of liberty and money. These are two things very important to folks in our system.”
McFarland said that it’s not just up to court reporters to fix the problem, but asked that lawyers and judges speak up to legislators to work on a solution.
“Something has got to be done,” she said. “Putting electronic devices into the courtroom, you still need people to monitor those. Give court reporters back those jobs. Let them do it in their own county and pay them for it.”
Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney