Remondini stresses that the pilot isn’t designed to put publicly employed court reporters out of work — quite the opposite, actually. “Since courts are under such a tight budget crunch and they’re getting more work with no more staff,” Remondini said, “even if a court reporter never typed another transcript they’d have plenty of work to do.”

Less than one month into the pilot, it’s already producing some unexpected results: in one instance, an attorney used some of the audio from parts of a trial and played it back to the jury as part of his closing arguments.

Future Growth

Minnesota’s Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, has taken a middle path: It uses both digital and in-person reporting. In 2006, faced with too many trials and too few court reporters, county officials created a centralized court-reporting center, with live closed-circuit video and audio feeds from each courtroom that can be monitored from a central location. Many of the court reporters are also stenographers and can be called in to monitor a trial at the request of the judge or attorneys.

Faced with layoffs and technology changes, the tensions between stenographers and digital system operators can run high. But both concede that digital recording is better for the average misdemeanor or civil suit while stenography is best for high-profile or contentious litigation that merits a real-time transcript so the proceedings can be read back on demand.

In the transition away from in-person stenographers, explained Tamara Halonen, court record coordinator for Hennepin County, nobody was laid off and no positions were eliminated. “There was an element of cost savings in the discussion,” said Halonen, “but the discussion really started because we didn’t have enough people to fill these jobs.”

That shortage is likely to get worse as fewer people choose stenography as a profession: The number of people graduating from court reporting programs dropped 61 percent from 1996 to 2006.

Furthermore, there are new opportunities for stenographers outside the courtroom. Stenographers can provide real-time closed captioning for the deaf, or take depositions for law firms or agencies.

The one-time profession of Charles Dickens has transformed into a lucrative field of computerized closed-captioning and real-time transcription where reporters can make upward of $100,000 per year by working for courts or even more money in closed-captioning for TV or movies.

Employment for court reporters is expected to grow by about 14 percent over the next 10 years, the average growth rate for all professions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Catherine Meredith, a third-year court reporting student in Philadelphia, is confident that her job prospects will remain bright far into the future.

“There’s a huge need for court reporters because of retirements and not enough people going into court reporting,” Meredith said. “On some level, I’m sure (the courts would) like to replace reporters with all electronic machines, but until it’s really sophisticated, that’s not going to happen for a long time.”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

Maggie Clark, Stateline  | staff writer staff writer