The technology and computerization increasingly being installed in courtrooms across the country is changing the job of court reporters, and is, in some cases, replacing them. Overloaded and underfunded courts are increasingly looking at audio and video recording as a way to cut costs, which is achieved mainly by eliminating the salaries and related costs of court reporters.
The California Judicial Council, in a 1992 report to the Legislature on several pilot projects, estimated that each video-recorded courtroom could save about $41,000 per year, and each audio-recorded courtroom -- which requires an employee to monitor the equipment -- could save about $28,000 annually. Courts around the nation find these and similar figures attractive and are increasingly adopting the technology. This trend would seem to mean that court reporting is a dying profession about to be replaced in many cases by electronic recording devices. But reporters have adapted to changes over the centuries, and remain confident that they will not meet the same fate as buggy whip manufacturers.
"As technology changes in the future, we will adapt," said Gary Cramer, spokesman for the California Court Reporters Association. "I am confident that the court reporting field will stay healthy."
Reporters have been in this country's courts since the early 1800s. Their tools have changed over the centuries from inkwells to stenograph machines, and more recently to today's computer-aided transcription, or CAT.
Fredric I. Lederer of the law school at the College of William and Mary and an administrator at the National Center for State Courts' Courtroom of the Future, said rather than simply recording proceedings, the court reporter's job may expand to running technology in the courtroom.
Reporters "who keep pace with technology will become court technologists," running recording equipment and computers to ensure an accurate record of the hearing, Lederer said.
But as courts around the country increasingly use or consider audio or video recording, some reporters are being put out of work. This movement is causing some strain between court reporters and the courts.
In California, an attempt to allow courts to use audio-visual recording has led to a court battle between reporters and the state Judicial Council. The council, which sets court rules, wants to allow local courts the discretion to use recording in place of reporters. Reporters are challenging the council's authority to make these rules. The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which as of press time hadn't decided if it would hear it.
A key argument by reporters against audio recording is that costs are shifted from the courts to attorneys and ultimately their clients. "There are huge amounts of hidden costs in this," said Cramer. "It costs the litigant more and the court less." While getting a copy of a tape from the court doesn't cost parties very much, he explained, having it transcribed can be more expensive than buying an official transcript from a reporter.
Reporters' associations aren't against all recording of court proceedings. When there is a relatively low volume and low likelihood of appeal in a court -- said Paula Laws, president of the National Association of Court Reporters -- the group is not against using tapes to create the official record. Traffic or bankruptcy courts are examples when reporters may not object to recording.
"If it is a low-volume court and you see attrition taking place, it's not an issue," Laws said. "If they are just replacing them, it could be an issue. Where you see concern is when [the court] says they want to use tape or video in high-volume courts."
An example of how video used in the courtroom has affected reporters and others is the Kentucky Circuit Courts, which have been recording proceedings on video for about 10 years. "Reporters are seldom used anymore here," said Donald Taylor, court administrator of the Fayette County Circuit Court, which includes Lexington.
Reporters in Kentucky Circuit Courts were mainly phased out through attrition and reassignment over a period of years. No figures were available on the savings, but the court doesn't have to pay reporter salary and benefits. And records, usually owned and sold to the court by the reporter who created them, are now owned outright by the court.
"It could cost thousands of dollars for a transcript" made by a reporter in a courtroom, Taylor said, depending on its length. "Now we just send a copy of a tape to the court of appeals."
With Kentucky's videotape record, attorneys can go across the street and have a copy made for about $10, then have someone make a paper transcript from the tape. Tapes sent to appeals by trial courts are usually transcribed, depending on the judge's preference of tape or paper. Lawyers filing legal briefs on appeals cases reference the tape rather than page numbers of a transcription.
Reporters no longer employed by the Kentucky courts found other work, mainly doing depositions and other freelance work. They also get work creating a paper record of trials for attorneys who don't want to use a videotape to review a case.
Generally, it costs about $1,000 to transcribe a day's worth of court proceedings from videotape, said Ann Le Roy, president of An-Dor Reporting Service Inc. in Lexington, Ky. A transcript sold to lawyers after a hearing when the reporter is in the courtroom for a day costs around $600, she said.
Attorneys, meanwhile, generally prefer to work with a transcript
rather than a video recording when preparing briefs, said Joe Savage, a plaintiff's attorney in Lexington. "Most attorneys like a transcript before trial," he said. "I can read a transcript in 30 minutes while it would take two hours with video."
What all this means is that clients have to pay more for legal representation when a tape is the official transcript because counsel will likely have it transcribed. Meanwhile, the public saves money because the courts don't have to hire reporters for trials.
WHAT REPORTERS WANT
Reporters, Cramer said, see opportunity as courtrooms are increasingly computerized. Computer-integrated courtrooms need people to run them, he said, and reporters using real-time transcription or CAT could produce quick transcripts for the court.
The optimum situation, Cramer said, is for a court reporter with real-time readouts to be used in conjunction with videotape. CAT machines cost between $15,000 and $20,000 excluding a stenograph, depending on the sophistication desired by the reporter who usually must buy his or her own equipment. Stenographs, which now come with connected notebook computers, run about $3,000 to $4,000.
A reporter using CAT equipment types the proceedings into a steno machine as they occur, and the language is immediately translated to English and displayed on monitors. Judges and attorneys can get a record on a floppy disk at the end of each court day, rather than waiting for an overnight translation from stenography to English. And because the proceedings are displayed immediately, judges and counsel can mark testimony or make notes to themselves for later use in the case.
"It makes the reporter more productive," said Laws. With CAT, the reporter can get a rough draft
to attorneys at the end of a court day,
and have an official transcript
available soon after because there is less editing required than with traditional stenograph machines.
More common are steno machines with a laptop computer attached. Unofficial transcripts are translated by software and made available to attorneys and judges at the end of the day on floppy disks. It is still not unusual, however, for reporters to have to provide transcripts on paper, sometimes because the court or attorneys don't have the right equipment to read them electronically.
Reporters want the various courts
to computerize and standardize so
the record can be stored electronically. Ultimately, a trial can be recorded
and stored on a database, then transferred by disk or even modem to an appeals court. "But the trial court computers can't communicate with superior court," said Cramer. "We would like to see court reporter notes stored electronically to improve our ability to save those records" in case of an appeal, he said.
It is unlikely court reporters will disappear altogether. In high-volume courts, cases likely to be appealed, and capital crime cases, reporters will likely be used. Even with the advent of audio and video recording, the profession doesn't seem threatened with extinction. Yet reporter capabilities are evolving with the arrival of computer-integrated courtrooms and CAT.
"We suffer some of the same fear you see in other professions," Cramer said. "But there are a lot of younger people moving into reporting, and they have more of an ability to use more sophisticated machinery."
For more information, contact Linda Walker, technology specialist at the National Center for State Courts at 804/253-2000.
A tape of a secret hearing related to the Oklahoma City bombing was later found to be blank last spring when it was unsealed. The tape was the only record of the hearing.
James Nichols' hearing before a U.S. magistrate judge was closed to the press and public, and an audio tape was sealed by the court when the hearing finished. When the Detroit Free Press won an order to have the record unsealed, the tape was blank.
Court officials said they assume the tape recorder was not properly activated or monitored during the hearing. "This is very embarrassing," Court Administrator John Mayer told the Free Press. "It has happened once or twice before in the past 15 years, but never in a case of this magnitude."
Nichols, who was held in Michigan as a material witness soon after the Oklahoma City bombing, has since been released for reasons unrelated to the non-recorded hearing.
March Table of Contents
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.