Attorneys fear delays, inaccuracies with loss of court reporters

Six of the county’s seven common pleas judges voted Wednesday to end the court reporter program — leaving four employees without jobs — in an effort to save $200,000 annually from its budget. County commissioners had asked the court to cut 5 percent out of its proposed $4 million general fund budget for 2013.

“I think it is unfortunate if it is budget driven,” said defense attorney Tamara Sack, who is a Butler County Bar Association officer. “It is always better to have a court reporter transcribe testimony in real time, especially if there is a need to have testimony read back during trial or to provide attorneys with transcripts during trial without any delay.”

Jack Grove, an attorney and chairman of the Butler County Public Defender Commission, said there are problems with recording devices, such as sirens and outside noise, making some portions of the taping inaudible.

“But court reporters are not perfect either,” Grove said. “As attorneys, our concern is not so much who does or how the transcript is done; our foremost concern is that it is accurate.”

Who will prepare transcripts is yet to be decided, but it will not be county employees, according to Court Administrator Gary Yates. On Thursday, court reporters were not in any of the courtrooms. Judges’ staff members, usually bailiffs, who have been manning the court recording system for years, were continuing that responsibility.

The four court reporters — Jennifer Olivier, Elaine Haberer, Linda Tuttle and Kathy Nicholson — are on paid administrative leave through Dec. 31 when their positions will be terminated. Yates said they are finishing transcripts already in progress from home.

Olivier, who filed a complaint against Judge Michael Sage earlier this year claiming retaliation after their nine-year affair ended, Haberer and Tuttle all declined to talk about the layoffs. Nicholson could not be reached for comment.

The county judges discussed several options other than eliminating court reporters to achieve the 5 percent cut, Yates said. Those options, he said, included reductions in the probation department and bookkeeping staffs and shifting funds from the general fund budget.

Yates said the court could have submitted its budget as written with a court order for the County Commission to approve, but that was not a move the judges wanted to make. Ultimately, it was determined that because the county had a court recording system in place, the court reporters were the most expendable.

“We have always tried to work with the commissioners in the past, and we are now,” Yates said.

Judges Noah Powers, Andrew Nastoff, Charles Pater and Craig Hedric voted to end the court reporters program, according to Yates. Judges Keith Spaeth and Patricia Oney voted against. Judge Sage did not attend.

Spaeth declined comment Thursday when contacted by the JournalNews, and the remainder of the judges could not be reached for comment.

The court reporting system has been a source of debate in the past dating back to 2005 when some judges favored eliminating the program as a cost savings. At that time, Sage strongly opposed removing court reporters from courtrooms.

The court reporter system was a pilot program that had been initiated in 2001 to allay concerns about inaccuracies in court transcripts. In 2001, secretaries and other office staff, not professional transcriptionists, were typing transcripts.

“I would say the court reporting program at that time was seen by the County Commission and the bar association as what they thought was the best way to record our hearings. It was an idea pitched from the outside,” Yates said, adding that in the current financial climate it is just not cost effective.

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