Court Reporters See Their Numbers Dwindle

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Written By admin at Tuesday, August 7th, 2012


Humans or machines? When it comes to documenting proceedings in courts, technology seems to be winning out.

Three Indiana courts are among the latest to go digital, using video recordings to create official court transcripts for a year as a part of a pilot project, reports The Indiana Lawyer.

Earlier, Law Blog reported on how court reporters were almost entirely supplanted by digital recorders in New Jersey, part of a growing trend of state courts utilizing digital technology to replace salaried stenographers.

The shift is accelerated both by improving technology and squeezed state budgets. Most U.S. bankruptcy courts, federal magistrate courts and at least five states now solely use digital recording systems while 18 other states are increasingly making it common practice.

Jim Cudahy, the executive director of the National Court Reporters Association, says this shift is a “knee jerk reaction to go with the lower cost option.”

Naturally, court reporters have been fighting the transition since the Judicial Conference, the principal policy making body of the U.S. courts, decided in 1999 that electronic recordings were legal records. But the reality is that the pool of court reporters is shrinking. Moreover, states courts have determined that improved digital technology and the lower costs far outweigh the risks to occasional malfunctions in equipment.

Court reporters point out that read-backs in the courtroom to clarify prior proceedings are often more cumbersome with digital recordings. They also tout the benefits of real-time reporting, which means a transcript is finished minutes after the proceedings conclude. Real-time reporting also enables people with hearing disabilities to follow along as the action happens.

“You need a well-designed, well-integrated system to make a good record with a digital recording device,” says Judge John Storck of the Dodge County Circuit Court in Juneau, Wisconsin, who has used digital recording devices in his courtroom for about 11 years.

The ideal system, he says, is a blended system that uses digital recording but allows for the use of court reporters when the proceedings are particularly complex.

Michael Tannen, the executive director, of the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers, says: “The new judges coming in are more attuned to the digital recording systems.”

In 2010, Judges Charles Cunningham of Jefferson Circuit Courts in Kentucky lost the audio record of an entire assault and unlawful imprisonment trial due to a digital recording malfunction, but he says “court reporters can make mistakes too.”

Added Justice Michael McDonald, who was instrumental in pioneering the transition to digital recording in Kentucky over 30 years ago: “The court reporter’s transcript is the rankest of hearsay; you’re just trusting she hears it correctly.”

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