IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

More Than Stenography: Exploring Court Record Options (Part 1)

As courts grapple with a growing need for more reporters, some are considering turning to automated speech-to-text tools and other less traditional alternatives.

Pink soundwaves coming out of a person's mouth. Dark blue background.
With stenographic court reporters in short supply nationally, some courts are considering whether automated speech-to-text tools could eventually serve in human reporters’ stead. But traditional stenographer or automation aren’t the only two options. Courts are exploring other ways to expand how they create court records, too.

Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, for one, has digital reporters who monitor audio recordings of proceedings and produce official written transcripts. Some believe this digital reporting space is ready to grow. Iowa, meanwhile, recently joined the ranks of states allowing voice writers, which means professionals who dictate into stenomasks as part of creating the official record. And Kentucky has long relied on audiovisual recordings rather than written transcripts for its official record, meaning it doesn’t use court reporters of any type.

While the ways that states are addressing this ongoing shortage in court reporters vary, making use of voice writers has emerged as one option. In court, voice writers repeat what is said verbatim into a stenomask. A computer-aided transcription system then assists in transforming that audio into text, in near real time.

Voice writers develop their own specialized dictionaries to help the software more accurately interpret audio into the correct words, too, said Jill Cox, freelance voice writer and director of the board of the National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA). In advance of a medical case, for example, a voice writer may prepare their software with a dictionary tailored for medical terms.

And the profession is working to gain more widespread acceptance.

Per the NVRA, “voice writing court reporters are able to practice in the state court systems of most states but are restricted to freelance reporting in some.” A few states do not recognize voice writing.

The Court Statistics Project’s State Court Organization data gives a rough sense of voice writing’s reach.

Its 2022 data set reflects 30 state trial courts as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. Voice writing was used in at least one court of record in 11 of these states as well as in D.C. Usage could vary by court: North Carolina’s superior court uses voice writers, for example, but not its district court.

Voice writers tend to be able to complete training faster than stenographers, meaning the voice writing workforce could theoretically build more quickly. Cox said stenography schools take anywhere from two to six years, while becoming a voice writer ranges from 18 months to two years.

The NVRA says that shorter training is because people enter school looking to improve on existing listening and speaking skills, rather than learn the new skill of stenography. As such, those looking to become voice writers start closer to the desired word per minute speed. Cox said, “Voice writers often begin speed building at 120 words per minute, whereas stenography students may begin speed building at 40-60 words per minute.”

Until recently, Iowa was one of a handful of states that prohibited use of voice writers, said state court administrator Bob Gast. Having joined the state only two years ago, Gast was unaware of the exact reason for that prohibition but said the state likely hadn’t considered alternatives to traditional stenographers while it still had a sufficient supply.

That’s no longer the case, however, with Iowa facing 43 court reporter vacancies and the prospect that about 20 of its current 146 reporters are eligible to retire at any time. Iowa was encouraged to accept voice writing after realizing that those that obtain NVRA certifications meet the same speed and accuracy levels as certified stenographic reporters.

“Once we looked at NVRA certification standards, they were exactly the same as our stenographic standards,” Gast said. “That really made the decision for us, or helped the court make the decision.”

Gast expects Iowa can recruit enough voice writers to ease — but not entirely sate — its needs, and he hopes to see as many as 12 hired in the next year. Voice writers are “another tool in our toolbox,” he added, and the state also is considering ideas around payment plans and bonuses to help recruit and retain.

One tool not currently being added is digital reporters, although Gast said Iowa’s Court Reporter Utilization Committee will likely later discuss the prospect.

As the court considered its options, “digital reporters were still new enough, and I don’t think we looked at digital reporters very hard. I think we wanted to concentrate on getting the voice reporters on board first,” Gast said.

Currently, when court reporters are in short supply, the state uses video recordings to capture more routine, small claims cases. Judicial specialists — jack-of-all trade courtroom attendants — trained on the software to check that the recording tech is working. Staff court reporters are later asked to transcribe as needed.

Check back next week for Part 2 of this series.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.