Of all of the important matters which were debated by the 90th Arkansas General Assembly, none had a greater practical impact upon the state’s trial court employees and the Administrative Office of the Courts than Act 268 of 2015.
On July 1, 2015 the AOC officially welcomed 244 new employees, consisting of 122 court reporters and 122 trial court administrators. Each circuit judge has always been provided a court reporter, originally paid by the county. In 1984 the positions were transferred to the state and managed by the Auditor of State. In recent years, many circuit judges also employed assistants to provide clerical, office and case management functions. These positions were also funded by county government and were titled as “case coordinators” or “trial court assistants.” In 1995 the state began a pilot program for the organization and the assumption of the cost of these positions and in 1997, each circuit judge was provided a trial court assistant, at state expense, managed by the Auditor of State.
The state’s source of funding for both court reporters and trial court assistants is and has been a combination of various costs and fees assessed and collected in circuit and district courts. While this has historically been a stable source of revenue, serious problems began to occur a few years ago with the severe downturn in the national economy. The funding issues caused great disruption and concern for all trial court employees. In addition, an analysis of the positions revealed a great discrepancy in salary levels across the state when compared to years of service. The low level of the entry level salary for the positions also made recruitment very difficult in many areas of the state.
After a year-long intense study conducted by the Personnel Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council in conjunction with representatives of the Arkansas Judicial Council, a plan was developed to transfer all of the positions to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The intent of the transfer was and is to provide better management of the funding and administration of the positions, achievable, in part, through close contact and cooperation with circuit judges.
The Arkansas Judicial Council has created a new Trial Court Employee Committee which has been given the authority and responsibility to work with the AOC in the oversight and management of employees. The Committee is chaired by Judge Robert Edwards and also includes Judges Beth Bryan, Carlton Jones, Charles Clawson, Charles Yeargen, Cindy Thyer, Earnest Brown, Hamilton Singleton, Mackie Pierce, Vann Smith, Doug Schrantz and Phil Smith. Also, serving on the committee are Mike Ashcraft, the representative of the Arkansas Court Reporters Association and Sherri Daniels, a representative of the Trial Court Administrators Association.
Our state and our judicial system are blessed to be served by these dedicated and talented employees who serve our circuit judges, their local judicial districts and the public. There is much work yet to be done to improve the structure and funding for the positions but, for now, all of us at the AOC are honored to assume these new responsibilities as we work together to “support courts and ensure justice.”