October 2015 • Volume 103 • Number 10 • Page 12
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The looming court-reporter shortage
Seventy-five percent of the state's licensed reporters could be eligible for retirement before the end of the decade. Will there be qualified candidates to replace them?
Earlier this year, budget constraints forced many counties to lay off court reporters, among other support staff. While those who were laid off have returned to work, the Illinois court system faces a deeper problem - there simply aren't enough court reporters. Many are expected to retire in the coming years, and those vacancies may go unfilled because there are not enough certified court reporters to fill them.
Tammy Bumgarner, Director of Court Reporting Services for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, says there are currently more than 40 vacancies statewide. Unlike the "budget anomaly" that caused the layoffs earlier this year, the current shortage is based on several factors. Bumgarner, whose office works under the direction of the Illinois Trial Court Chief Judges, estimates that 150 court reporters are currently eligible to retire out of 600 employees.
The average age of a court reporter in the Illinois court system is 51 years old, she says. Although the retirement age is currently 60, state employees may use the "rule of 85" and retire earlier. Under the rule, court reporters (and other state employees) can retire with fully vested pension benefits if the total of their age and years employed by the state is 85 or higher. This can lead to reporters retiring before they turn 60.
The upshot: Seventy-five percent of the state's licensed reporters could be eligible for retirement before the end of the decade. Bumgarner calculates that the circuit courts will have to replace over 400 court reporters over the next 10 years.
The move toward the electronic recording of court proceedings in some counties has helped ameliorate the problem. "Illinois is very forward-thinking with its electronic recording," she says. The practice provides a public record in cases that do not have a high probability of requiring a transcript. But courts still require a licensed court reporter to generate the official transcript, meaning that recording cannot completely replace reporting.
Non-licensed court specialists can monitor live recordings, with reporters rotating in when a transcript is requested. This practice has been successful in DuPage County, for example. Bumgarner feels that electronic recording is becoming less of an option and more of a necessity as reporters grow more scarce.
A shrinking pool
Bumgarner also notes that some circuit courts are "hurting more than others" when it comes to the shortage. For example, vacancies in Chicago-area courts are easier to fill because of the larger pool of candidates. Other circuits don't have that luxury.
The Eleventh Judicial Circuit (comprising McLean, Livingston, Logan, Woodford, and Ford counties) is seeking to fill four positions. One has been vacant three years. See Illinois Courtrooms Facing Shortage of Court Reporters, CBS St. Louis (July 31, 2015), http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2015/07/31/illinois-courtrooms-facing-shortage-of-court-reporters/.
Although there are slightly more than 2,000 licensed court reporters state-wide, 25 percent are already employed by the state court system.
To make matters worse, the pool of reporters is not growing. The state has several court reporting schools, but some are closing due to low enrollment. One school in Peoria has fewer than 15 students in its court reporting program, Bumgarner says. She notes that a school in Hobart, Indiana has started offering online courses.
"Barring an influx into schools, there will be a shortage in 10 years," Bumgarner says. According to the Illinois Official Court Reporters website (www.illinoisofficialcourtreporters.com), 12 judicial circuits are currently seeking court reporters, with the Fifth Judicial Circuit seeking both full-time and per diem reporters.
The Seventeenth Judicial Circuit is hiring reporters and court specialists. Court specialists do not need a certified shorthand reporter license, which is issued by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. It is also possible to obtain a restricted version of the license, which allows individuals employed with the Illinois courts to work as court reporters where an electronic recording system is present after passing an initial exam.
In the meantime, the Illinois court system is left with a potentially serious problem. Counties can only roll out electronic recording systems if they have the funds to do so. If more people do not enroll in court reporting programs, the stream of potential candidates will continue to diminish.
Even with electronic recording, this will be a problem. While privately hired reporters can fill some of the gaps, they are only present when hired by counsel or parties to a case. Bumgarner suggests that those interested in a career as a court reporter begin their research by visiting www.illinoisofficialreporters.com.