In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes the difficulty of learning “the noble art and mystery of stenography.” Dickens wrote from experience: Before becoming a novelist, he worked as a court stenographer. People have practiced the “noble art” for millennia, from the Ancient Greeks to the actor Harvey Keitel, who worked as a court reporter before launching his acting career.

But 162 years after Dickens published his classic novel, a shrinking number of U.S. courts rely solely on human beings to record legal proceedings. In an era of tight budgets, courts in all 50 states have replaced court stenographers — many of whom can type more than 250 words per minute — with digital recording systems. These systems range from simple tape recorders to multiple-camera, motion-sensitive systems.

Undoubtedly, digital recording saves money. For instance, a salaried New Jersey stenographer will cost a court between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, said Jeff Newman, deputy clerk for New Jersey’s Office of Reporting Services, as opposed to a $5,000 per year cost to set up and maintain digital recording equipment.

In Kentucky, video recordings of court proceedings have served as the official court record for 30 years, ever since judges wanted to take back control of the record during a stenographers’ strike. But Kentucky’s experience also demonstrates that relying entirely on digital recording can be risky: In 2010, a judge in Jefferson County had to rehear a murder case after the court’s digital recording system malfunctioned.

Cost-Cutting Measures

While there surely are non-fiscal benefits to digital systems, like speeding up the time it takes to certify the record, a desire to save money is the primary reason courts move away from in-person court reporters.

In 2009, Utah shifted all transcription to private transcribers and created a Web-based system where reporters could access all the audio and video files of the court proceedings online. “The impetus for this change,” wrote Utah State Court Administrator Daniel Becker in an article about Utah’s re-engineering, “was … a result of budget reductions.” Since the transition, Utah has saved more than $1.3 million, eliminated nearly 50 full-time positions and cut the time from transcript request to delivery from an average of 138 days to 12 days for cases not on appeal.

Similarly, in California, the state Legislative Analyst's Office recommended in a 2011-2012 policy brief that the state courts could save $113 million if every court used electronic court reporting. San Francisco Superior Court installed audio recording equipment to replace court reporters in misdemeanor and traffic trials earlier this year and expects to save $1.5 million in ongoing salary savings following the layoffs of 29 court reporters, said Ann Donlan, communications director for the court.

Maintaining Control

In addition to cost, many courts have moved away from human stenographers because they want to maintain ownership of the court record. In fact, it was this tension that led to the first digital recording system in Kentucky more than 30 years ago, said Kurt Maddox, known as the “chief evangelist” of video court recordings at Louisville, Ken.-based Jefferson Audio Visual Solutions.

“If (the stenographer) didn’t show up, you couldn’t have court,” Maddox said, “and from a process point of view, you can see how judges weren’t too keen on having others control the workflow of the court.” Over time, Kentucky expanded video recording systems to every court in the state, making it the only state to completely abandon stenography.

Looking to follow in Kentucky’s footsteps, three courts in Indiana are participating in a yearlong pilot project to make audio tape recordings the official court record. The Indiana courts aren’t looking to cut costs, said David Remondini, chief deputy executive director of Indiana’s division of state court administration. Instead, they want to shorten the time it takes to get a transcript for an appeal, down from the current allotted time of 90 days to nearly no time at all, since the tape recording of the trial is the official record and no transcription is needed.

Maggie Clark, Stateline  |  Stateline.org staff writer

Stateline.org staff writer