A Legal System without Court Reporters?

dodo-bird

That’s what Judge Richard Kopf wants. The last time I wrote about digital court reporting, it spawned 30 comments and a robust flamewar between digital court reporters and traditional transcriptionists (typists?). And my old post on court transcripts and copyright periodically flares up, as well, when a court reporter email list or forum comes across it.

Suffice it to say that court reporters are pretty worried about their profession. And I guess they should be worried. (Let me be clear: I don’t have anything against court reporters. I think they are awesome, in fact. They are also really expensive. The expense is justified when there is no viable alternative. But when there is a viable, cheaper alternative, it’s hard to justify the cost of a court reporter.)

But Kopf is not suggesting firing anyone. He just wants the courts to stop hiring new court reporters, replacing them instead with digital audio recording. The savings? “[A]n internal study I conducted of our court three years ago indicated that the public would be saved about $110,000 per year if 3 reporters were replaced with digital audio recording.”

Not only would it save money, it would mean fast access to digital recordings via CM/ECF for lawyers involved in the case (and the public, through PACER, although I suppose courts would have to be extra-vigilant when it comes to confidential information).

The bottom line is that, under the sequester, the courts are going to lose personnel. Kopf wants to minimize that by applying the savings from retiring court reporters to preserve other jobs: for every court reporter we replace, we can devote the savings to retaining essential personnel such as federal public defenders.

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  • Maggie Rose

    Court Reporters are
    the only credible form of checks and balances. While you find them expensive, think about how much it will cost when a case has to be retried because of an inaudible recording or technical glitch that’s deemed not a credible record of proceedings.
    Some cases are literally life and death and the idea of leaving it up to an electronic recording on a computer to save money is terrifying.

    • Judy

      I transcribe the audios for the federal courts. Wish I could attach some of the transcripts I’ve had to produce. One case had seven attorneys with none of them identified. One case had more inaudibles than audibles. I have actually requested that they not send me audios from a particular court because they are so bad.

  • Connie Parchman

    I’m curious if the internal audit of cost savings includes updating and maintaining equipment (completing paid for by the court reporter in a reporter base system), transcription of audio files and retrial of cases that have been “Richard Nixon”ized or simply unrecorded.

  • William Pfeifer

    I would hate to try to write an appellate court brief based on a recording of a trial rather than a transcript.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Why would you have to? You would just have someone create a transcript from the recording.

      • William Pfeifer

        Which means I’m back to paying for a court reporter. An appellate court is not going to accept a transcript typed up by my secretary, it would need to be an official record of the proceedings.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          You are, I suppose, but think of the money saved on all the cases that don’t require a transcript.

          Plus, transcription is more reliable when there is a recording, which is why many private court reporters use a recorder along with their shorthand typewriter thingy.

          • Lisa Migliore Black

            Sam, transcripts produced from recordings alone are riddled with inaudible portions. Identification of who is speaking relies on guesswork in many cases. Your statement above is simply untrue. Furthermore, recordings fail routinely.

      • Nikki

        And I bet you would want that person to transcribe that transcript for minimum wage too. Good luck with that, because no reporter will be willing to do that kind of hard work for such low wages. Maybe a high school kid might be desparate enough for the money, but probably not. Even if a high school kid did agree to transcribe it, the integrity of the transcript would no doubt be jeopardized. Somehow the common belief is that lawyers deserve a whopping $500 to 1k an hour for their time, but the reporters and people that do the work for them don’t deserve a dime over minimum wage. This is complete BS. And, yes, I am a reporter with 10 years of experience in the field, so I know what I’m talking about.

  • lisa

    @ Sam. The recorder is in no way more reliable than the stenotype thingy. The recorder is for the situations, which are many, where attorneys start arguing AT THE SAME TIME, and it helps decipher things. Also, in the event of mechanical failures, words that are made up and the reporter can listen and realize she didn’t make a mistake, etc. If you get with lawyers from large firms you’ll realize they won’t work with someone with audio because they have a lot of experience and realize that the transcripts are bad. A reporter can go fast, but not at an unlimited, unreasonable speed of talking. The record depends on the attorney’s ability to control the situation, and make a record, and the reporter’s ability to make the record. When your case depends on a certain piece of testimony and an attorney decides to go into a coughing fit because he knows it will obliterate your much-needed testimony, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  • Guest

    You are correct that there may be some cost savings for those proceedings which will most likely not require a transcript. For those proceedings requiring a transcript, I have found it costs less to pay a steno reporter time and a half than it does to contract out the transcript to a firm that cares very little about the quality or deadlines for that matter. I have actually compared the cost of the steno reporter taking it down, at their hourly rate, compared to the digital reporter who must monitor the proceedings and make annotations, at their greatly reduced hourly rate, add in the cost to contract the audio out for transcription versus having the steno reporter produce a transcript at their OVERTIME hourly rate. The steno reporter is cheaper and more efficient. That is without adding in the administrative costs involved with contracting out the audio.
    The digital recording software companies are very adept at marketing. They are in business to make money, just as the steno reporters are. They will not tell you the downside. And trust me, there is a downside.

  • Official

    I would be interested to see exactly how the study that you personally conducted was comprised. The cost of technology and the time it takes for a digital reporter to produce a transcript still far outweighs the cost of a steno reporter. If I were a defendant, I would want to know an official and accurate record was being made by someone who is certified, experienced and responsible. It won’t be long before multiple problems come from flawed transcripts and/or missing audio data. This is already a problem but will soon grow exponentially. That being said, the most cost-effective and accurate official transcripts are best made when stenos and digitals work together to produce the most accurate transcript possible.

    • Karen Peckham

      I agree. 34 years reporting, first five spent dictating, ’85 I purchased from Stenograph my first computer system at a cost of 28,000. Remember those ‘ol Winchester drives and Maxell floppies, the Datawriter which would feed the steno onto the drive and translate into my dictionary which I am always building, then came along the first 2-serial port 386s which was all DOS then, then the 486s with Windows 3.1 (I acquired several of those), then the Windows 95 and the Windows 98 — Oh, let’s not forget the Windows 2000 Millenium version, then good ‘ol XP, then Windows 7 and now 8 on my Microsoft Surface Pros and a new paperless Bluetooth capable writer for sending Realtime feed with my Stenocast wireless Realtime. I have spent tens of thousands keeping up with technology. Every day my Realtime translates 99.8, 99.9. I can produce a transcript — just say when — and e-mail my digitally signed transcript right to a client’s e-mail on the same day. I love court reporting and always strive to give good service. It saddens me when I read of bullies trashing my chosen career path. I just want to clarify for anybody reading this that a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into reporting proceedings. It is challenging at times. True, our numbers have dwindled, but what do you expect when only a small percentage of reporting students actually have the right stuff to pass the national, state exams to become certified? Sadly, young people aren’t interested in going to reporting school once they see what is involved in making the record and the nominal amount reporters in California are allowed to charge for transcripts per government statute. We work very hard. The need for Realtime reporters is in great demand. I am shocked at the amount of people who want to collect unemployment instead of going to reporting school to fill the demand not just in the legal arena, but in CART (computer-aided Realtime transcription) for the hearing impaired who want to go on to university and closed-captioning network programming. Turn on your closed captioning when you watch your nightly news. That isn’t a voice recognition system; that is a Broadcast Captioner sitting at home with her steno writer in her bunny slippers sending out the captions for the hearing impaired. There is a strong demand for captioners in this country due to all the satellite and cable network programming. Big demand but little interest because young people don’t want to work that hard. They expect life handed to them on a silver platter. Enough said.

  • Official 2

    Sam, not being a court reporter yourself, I can understand how looking in from the outside you come up with your conclusions relative to court reporting. However, there is a bigger picture, and many aspects to court reporting and making an accurate record (which is the desired outcome in all of this) that you failed to mention and consider when making your conclusions. The reason you failed to take these major details into consideration is because, again, you are not a court reporter and not intimately familiar with or concerned with the end result: An accurate record that reflects EVERYTHING. That is the major problem with conclusions about trying to replace Court Reporters. Court reporters are ALWAYS thinking about how the record will appear even as the proceedings are taking place. This is their responsibilitiy, and they know ! They live it, and they take it seriously. Digital DOES NOT capture everything, and sometimes doesn’t get very much. Let me give you some examples. We’ve conducted voir dire before, and a late juror arrived. I visually eyed the juror coming in, and when that juror got placed into the box, I was able to notify the Judge that that juror had not been sworn in previously. During voir dire, it is hit or miss if you can hear a juror — not yes or no answers, but speaking about personal experiences and their life. I frequently interrupt and ask them to speak up. When we have interpreters, if I was not personally present, a transcriber would not be able to hear the Judge speak over the interpreter who interprets simultaneously. When we had a high-profile case, and someone in the spectator section spoke out during a witness’ testimony, a transcriber would not be able to capture who spoke (identify them) and what they said. These are very important details that are missed if a reporter is not present. I’ve had depositions where associates came in and out of the proceedings throughout the day. I reported every time they were present and absent. At the end of the depo, one of the attorneys said he wanted it noted in the deposition when the associate was present and not. I had already thought of that when it first happened. Digital would not have recorded that. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: Court Reporters are not only the ears, but also the eyes in every proceeding. When we have sealed proceedings, I write down every person who is in the courtroom. How would digital do that? I’ve experienced digital where two attorneys sound very much alike and we couldn’t determine who said what. Does that make for a good record to have “Unidentified Speaker” for everything that was said? And to correct your statement that the reason reporters use a tape recorder along with their machine, I use audio sync for 2 reasons: when I have had criminal defendants who dispute my transcript (I’ve had that about three times in 25 years), I am able to play the audio for them and show them that what I wrote and put in the transcript was accurate (This is especially helpful since they cannot read steno). Secondly, it aids my scopist in producing the final transcript (in case she can’t read the steno outline that didn’t translate). But MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT, reporters DO NOT rely on the audio EVER. Glitches happen even on the best of days and for no apparent reason. We never, ever rely on the audio. Sam, I hope my comments have clarified for you and other readers why Court Reporters are currently the best record over and above digital. There is a LOT more that goes into making a record than just typing up the words.

  • lori law

    I have been a court reporter for 30 years. Ten years ago, because of all the hype on digital recording, we were basically forced into become a transcription service as well. I can tell you from personal experience back then, it was horrendous trying to type up one of those recordings. If you didn’t understand something, you had to replay it numerous times to try to make sense of what was being said. We then decided to give up the transcription end because we couldn’t honestly say that the transcript was a “true and accurate recording,” because half the time you couldn’t understand what was said.
    About six months ago, we got involved in another banter about court reporter versus digital recording and the digital “court reporters” – as they call themselves – reported that their equipment is very sophistacted, acutely accurate, precisely sound efficient, etc.
    Having had some slow time in the industry of court reporting lately, we decided to again try out the digital recordings thinking after ten years maybe the equipment became so sophisticated and precise that we didn’t know what we were talking about. Well, I can report, first hand, nothing has changed. If you can’t hear someone, you can’t hear them, plain and simple. In one of the recordings, at one point the Judge admonished someone and we had no idea who he was admonishing and for what reason, but he went into a tirade about some person accusing the plaintiff of being a liar. There was nothing on the recording at all of a person saying anything which led the Judge into this dialogue.
    The other problem was the age old problem of people speaking so fast you can’t understand what they’re saying. They spew off proper names, addresses, narrate events, times, etc. and you have to phonetically guess at what they’re saying.
    You have people talking over each other and there is no one there to stop them because the judge is so involved in the conversation he is not thinking what the record will look like.
    I can go on and on with more examples, but I am just relating a current experience.
    I have always told everyone I know that if they are ever in court and they need a transcript to always demand a court reporter because it’s that important.

  • can tape no more of this

    On November 6, 2012, oral argument was had in the matter of People of the State of Illinois v. Duane O’Malley, Central District of Illinois, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 12-2771. Mr. O’Malley is a colleague of mine, and I offered to listen to the tape recording of the hearing. His attorney directed me to the site. Imagine his, and my, shock in finding that there was no recording of the hearing. No court reporter was present, either.
    Mr. O’Malley can no longer afford counsel, and he has absolutely no idea as to what was said during the oral argument.
    On January 8, 2014, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his appeal.

    Mr. O’Malley is now pursuing a Rule 33 and is anticipating filing a 2255 motion as he serves a ten-year sentence for illegal asbestos removal – the stiffest sentence ever imposed for this crime.
    But without knowing what was said and argued during the oral argument stage of proceedings, Mr. O’Malley is at a loss as to how to proceed and secure any record of those proceedings.
    So, what is your stance? What happens when the tape recorder breaks down and there is no court reporter present to safeguard the rights of the accused?