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Justices Rule Court Stenographers May Be Sued

June 7, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Court stenographers may be sued for failing to provide a trial transcript, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Court reporters do not have the same absolute immunity as judges are granted from lawsuits over the way they do their work, the court ruled unanimously in a case from Washington state.

″Court reporters do not exercise the kind of judgment that is protected by the doctrine of judicial immunity,″ Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

Court reporters are part of the judicial function, but ″they are afforded no discretion in the carrying out of this duty; they are to record, as accurately as possible, what transpires in court,″ Stevens wrote.

Today’s ruling reversed a federal appeals court ruling that barred a lawsuit against a court stenographer accused of failing to provide a transcript for a criminal defendant’s appeal of his conviction.

Jeffery Antoine was convicted of bank robbery in 1986 after a two-day federal trial in Tacoma, Wash. He paid court stenographer Shanna Ruggenberg $700 for a trial transcript so he could prepare an appeal.

Antoine’s lawsuit said that over the next three years, Ruggenberg missed six deadlines set by the court to produce the transcript, saying at one point that she had lost some of her notes and tapes. An incomplete transcript was produced in 1989.

As a result, Antoine’s criminal appeal was not argued until four years after his conviction. He lost the appeal last year.

Antoine sued Ruggenberg and the private court-reporting firm that employed her, claiming a violation of his due-process rights and a breach of contract.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Ruggenberg was entitled to absolute immunity because she was acting as a quasi-judicial officer.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in 1991, although other federal appeals courts had ruled that court reporters are protected by only qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity shields public officials from legal liability unless they knowingly violated a person’s clearly established legal or constitutional rights.

Antoine’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that court stenographers, at most, should have only qualified immunity from federal lawsuits. Preparing court transcripts does not require the same kind of independent judgment exercised by judges, Antoine’s appeal said.

Stevens wrote today that even though court stenographers’ job is a hard one, ″the difficulty of a job does not by itself make it functionally comparable to that of a judge.″

A number of states allow court reporters to be sued in state court.

The case is Antoine vs. Byers & Anderson, 91-7604.

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