Politics & Government

House proposal would cut number of court reporters in Kansas

Kansas courts could have fewer court reporters if the Legislature follows through with a House committee recommendation.

The judicial branch could save between $750,000 to $1.3 million in the first year if it reduces court reporters by 15 percent, eliminating 13 vacancies and 18 current court reporter positions, said Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, the chief architect of the recommendation.

Seven states use electronic recording in 90 percent or more of court proceedings, and most others use them to varying degrees. DeGraaf noted at a Tuesday meeting of the House Appropriations Committee that 96 Kansas courts already have the capacity to do some electronic recording.

Opponents of the bill questioned the reliability of electronic recording.

The committee passed out its judicial branch budget recommendations which, along with the reduction of 31 positions, include a transfer of $180,000 from the state general fund to convert courtrooms for electronic recording.

DeGraaf said that electronic recordings would be just as effective as “the antiquated use of fingers and typing.”

“I’m not sure you’re going to get any less accuracy, some would say you’re going to get more accuracy,” DeGraaf said.

He said the savings would stay with the judicial branch and be used at the branch’s discretion.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, raised concern about how reliable electronic recording would be. She suggested the Legislature make the transition a recommendation rather than a requirement.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said he did not know the last time a branch of government took a reduction voluntarily.

DeGraaf said a 15 percent reduction over 14 months is reasonable, arguing that the Legislature could have called for a 30 or 40 percent reduction instead. He said there is “an institutional resistance to change” and the Legislature should not wait to require the courts’ transition.

The Kansas Bar Association tweeted during the hearing that none of the representatives at the committee hearing deciding the issue are attorneys. Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, a member of the committee, is an attorney but was absent from the meeting.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, an attorney who does not sit on the committee, said it was frustrating that the basis for the recommendation was saving money

“That’s why you shouldn’t have a plumber be your lawyer or a doctor be your plumber,” Ward said, arguing that some of the Appropriations Committee members approving the change do not fully understand the purpose of a court reporter.

“By far and away the best method of preserving testimony and ensuring a good review of trials is by having a court reporter, a human being, translating the words into that machine,” he said.

Sedgwick County uses electronic recording for some hearings, but always relies on a reporter for trials to ensure accuracy and avoid the possibility of a problem with the audio recording, Ward said.

The judicial budget has been a political football all session.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said early in the session that if courts do not receive an additional $8.25 million for fiscal year 2015, courts could be forced to close in July.

Last week, the Senate attached a series of reforms to the judicial budget that Senate leaders say will save money in some areas and generate new revenues in others to prevent closures.

The House Appropriations Committee set aside the Senate reforms until next week, when it will hold informational hearings, and instead focused on its own recommendations.