On Appeals: If a court reporter isn’t there, is it in the record?

The Recorder posted an article on Oct. 11 written by an appellate counsel that notes: “If you want your appeal decided on the merits, you had better be sure to have a real live reporter present to preserve your words of wisdom.”

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Court reporter transcription fees increase 

The South Carolina Lawyers Weekly reported on Oct. 17, that attorneys in the state will have to pay more for official transcripts after the state’s Supreme Court approved an amendment to its Appellate Court Rules that bumped up court reporter transcription fees across the state. Notable among the transcription fee increases is a $1 price-per-page increase to produce an original transcript.

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Court reporters seek regulation 

The Virginia Lawyers Weekly reported on Oct. 16, that Virginia court reporters plan to seek state regulation in the 2019 General Assembly, according to materials submitted to a panel that recommends changes in the law for civil practice

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NCRA Board Member participates in elementary school mock trial

NCRA Board Member Cindy L. Isaacsen, RPR, an official court reporter from Olathe, Kan., participated in a mock trial with fifth- and sixth-graders hosted on Oct. 10, by the Santa Fe Trail Elementary School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. The students sat with Johnson County judges, attorneys, a deputy court administrator, and Isaacsen, who helped the students determine if Goldilocks, from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” was guilty of a crime. These professionals visited the school to talk to students about the Constitution and branches of government.

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Watch the video.

Caught in the eye of the storm

Bobbi Fisher

By Bobbi Fisher

On September 10, Hurricane Florence made her presence known on the weather radar with an alarming size. Forecasters predicted a strong Category 4 hurricane was headed toward the Wilmington, N.C., area – to include where I live and work as an official reporter in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Mandatory evacuations began for our area on Tue., Sept. 11. Mandatory evacuation means, if you choose to stay, you do so at your own risk; rescue attempts, if needed, may not be possible. Since we have only lived here for three years, we checked with our seasoned neighbors to see if they were going to evacuate or stay. Our angst grew when they told us they would leave for this projected monster of a storm.

Facebook Live is a wonderful tool to use to get live local weather updates without having to stay glued to a television. If you “like” your local news channel, they will send you notifications when live feeds are about to start so you can tune in. It also offers an opportunity to actually chat with your meteorologist to ask specific questions. I find it a wonderful tool for emergency planning.

With the generator fueled and ready to go and a few trips to the grocery store to stock up on cases of water and food supplies, we decided we would stay home and ride it out. We live about three miles from the oceanfront but far enough inland where storm surge wouldn’t really affect us.

Fisher Courthouse in Horry County, S.C. after Hurricane Florence

I am an official reporter for Family Court in Horry County (Conway/Myrtle Beach). My husband also works in the same courthouse building with me but for the Clerk of Court’s office. We had one hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning, so as I was heading in to court, my judge called me and told me to turn around and go home. By then, roads had already started to close and I wasn’t able to turn around where I was in the road because they literally had just put up barricades. I had to make a huge loop north and then turn back south to get back home. Roads were starting to shut down literally as the minutes were ticking away.

After returning home that morning, we started to watch The Weather Channel to track Hurricane Florence. They were now projecting it would come to Wilmington then turn a sharp southwest, heading straight over our house. It was then we decided we better evacuate to our family in Northern Virginia. This began the task of packing everything we could. We have two pit bulls, so we decided to take both of our cars – one dog in each car.

Along with the normal clothing items for the next seven days, I packed up my reporting equipment. I had just purchased a new Luminex writer the week prior, so that was the very last thing to go in the car. Along with my writer, I packed up a separate bag with my laptop and my external hard drives (now I’ve converted to Dropbox). I left my hard copy court dockets in the filing cabinet because I scan all of those anyway. I made sure that any other papers and equipment were high enough off the ground in case we did have water inside our home. As a reporter, even in time of crisis, you must consider securing your equipment and your files the best way you can.

As we started planning our evacuation, another fear was making sure we would have enough fuel to make the six-hour trek through the Carolinas to get back to Virginia, as thousands of people were fleeing for safety and we weren’t sure of the gas situation along our route. In fact, I ended up calling ahead just to make sure at least one station had enough fuel in their tanks for us to refuel. We left at 4 a.m., and even at that hour, our local police were monitoring every intersection. The lane reversal was in effect, which meant that all lanes were only running westbound. It was a pretty neat experience to be driving on the wrong side of the road!

There are two major ways in to the Myrtle Beach area: the 501 Bypass, which runs in front of Lake Busbee; and the 501 Business, which runs through the historic town of Conway. Traffic also has to pass over an old bridge in Conway that is scheduled to have major repairs done in the next few months, so a lot of people were very worried about whether the bridge would even hold up for this amount of traffic, which included tractor trailers and heavy equipment trucks.

The Waccamaw River, which runs through Conway, is the runoff water from the rivers that start in North Carolina, where the hurricane dumped several inches of rain. The National Guard quickly started dumping huge piles of sand and dirt and massive sandbags to create a dam on the 501 Bypass so we did not lose our main highway. Helicopters flew overhead delivering sandbag after sandbag to the nearby cold ash reserve to try to contain the pond waters from seeping into the Waccamaw River flood waters.

Even 10 days after the hurricane, we waited for our rivers to crest and recede. Hundreds of people were frantically packing their belongings to try to save what they could, and it would take many, many days before those homeowners would be able to return to assess their damage.

Reserved court reporter parking spaces at Fisher Courthouse after Hurricane Florence

It would take a few days before the flooding would crest locally for us, so at least we had time to prepare. Court ended up being closed from Tues., Sept. 1, through Mon., Sept. 18.

When the waters started rising at the courthouse, the court reporter parking spaces became filled with up to three (or more) feet of water, and then the waters started to encroach on the judge’s parking area as well. The reserved court reporter spaces where I normally park were now busted up to install huge drainage equipment.

Downtown Conway looked like a war zone. With the water rising, many streets were impassable and closed, leaving you to try to figure out how to maneuver around town. The Waze app is another tool that many people used to get around during the storm. Because the roads were closing by the minute, the Waze app had real-time information on which roads were open and would direct you that way.

Several hundred homes were flooded as a result of the overflowing rivers. Along I-40 in North Carolina, hundreds of dead fish littered the highway after the waters receded. Displaced animals could be seen trying to survive the waters: A crocodile was seen swimming at the local dog park. Eels and snakes were now inside people’s homes. Fire ants built “chain” bridges and floated on top of the water. One of our court clerks even captured video of a wild hog swimming through the flood waters in the back of the courthouse and walking out next to her window.

Once the mandatory evacuations had been lifted and we were allowed to return to our homes, we began the quest to figure out how to get home. With many, many miles of highway along I-95 in North Carolina and South Carolina under water, we decided to go west, then south, then circle back east; a trip that would take us 11 hours compared to our normal six-hour route.

For us in the Myrtle Beach area, it wasn’t so much the wind damage but the flooding as a result of the North Carolina rivers that flow downstream to us. Even almost a month later, things still have not returned to normal for us. Many are still displaced from their homes. We’re just getting our local roads back to normal. Schools were out three weeks because of the weather, and many of them were turned into shelters. And now the mosquitos have taken on a life of their own. (I hear they’re pretty big!  Almost quarter size!)

There is one thing to say about something this eventful: The community spirit really shines through. There are still so many food/supply drives and fundraising events going on to help those in need. “Carolina Strong” is the motto we live by here, and it really shows in our spirit to overcome and rebuild once again.

Bobbi Fisher, RPR, is an official court reporter from Myrtle Beach, S.C. She also serves as a member of NCRA’s Proofreading Advisory Council.

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) published an article, “NCSC helps courts prepare for disaster,” in their October 2 bulletin.

NCRA members top list in USCRA realtime contest

NCRA members Sherry Bryant, RMR, CRR, of Harrisburg, Pa., and Doug Zweizig, RDR, CRR, of Towson, Md., both competed in the United States Court Reporters Association (USCRA) Realtime Speed Contest. USCRA, which is an association dedicated to federal court reporters, holds an annual contest with five minutes of recorded two-voice Q&A at 230 words per minute. To qualify, participants’ files must achieve a 96 percent accuracy. Bryant and Zweizig were the only two qualifiers this year: Bryant took top honors with 99.65 percent, and Zweizig followed closely behind with 99.48 percent.

Sherry Bryant

Bryant won NCRA’s 2018 Speed Contest; Zweizig placed second overall in NCRA’s 2018 Realtime Contest and won the 2015 contest. The JCR asked Bryant and Zweizig about the contest and their experience attending the USCRA convention.

How long have you been a reporter?

SB | I have been a court reporter since 1981.

DZ | 29 years this year, I think. It starts to run together.

Doug Zweizig

How long have you worked in a federal court?

SB | I worked in the Eastern District of New York from October 2013 through July 2016.

DZ | Four years this month!

How long have you been a member of USCRA?

SB | Since the end of 2015.

DZ | Four years.

Why did you decide to go to the United States Court Reporters Association convention this year?

SB | Since I live and work so close to where the convention was being held in Tysons Corner, Va. , I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to attend. Other factors were: A friend from Eastern District of New York was attending; Chief Reporter Melinda Walker, Deputy Chief Damien Jackson, and two reporters from the U.S. House of Representatives where I currently work were presenting one of the seminars; plus the chance to compete in their realtime contest.

DZ | It was very close to my area. About an hour away (well, two in the crazy Washington, D.C., traffic).

You said this was your first time. What were you expecting? 

SB | I was unsure what to expect other than something similar to other conventions or contests I have attended and entered.

DZ | I was not at all sure, honestly.

Was it what you were expecting?

SB | It was similar to the NCRA convention in some respects: The seminars were interesting and well-presented; lunch was provided; CEUs are awarded. There were not different seminars to choose from as there is with the NCRA Convention. I enjoyed all the seminars, though, so this was not an issue for me. There was a buffet lunch that we ate in the same room as well. I was pleasantly surprised that the venue was so nice and the food was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience attending the convention and competing in the realtime contest.

DZ | I will say that the USCRA contest was extremely orderly. We were instructed to meet in the lobby, and we’d be taken to the contest room. Once in the room, just pick a seat, take an envelope with your number. A bit of practice was next and then the contest was played. The room for the contest was small, so it was easy to hear with the Bose speakers.

How is it different from the NCRA contests?

SB | NCRA gives you special terms or proper names in order to create a job dictionary after you set up at the contest site, while USCRA gives them to you in advance of arrival. At the NCRA contests, you can set up approximately an hour in advance, while with the USCRA contest it is 15 minutes. After you are set up, they play warm-up material for 15 minutes or so. The NCRA Q&A realtime contest is 225 words per minute, while USCRA’s is 230 words per minute and is based on Federal Court transcripts. It was a challenging contest.

DZ | The USCRA contest had a relatively small number of contestants, and there was only one leg instead of two (230 Q&A). During the NCRA contests, we are able to use radio headsets to assist with hearing in a large room with sometimes high ceilings. It didn’t matter in this instance, because the room was small and I had no issue hearing. And the contest, to me, was extremely difficult, which is fine. I like a challenge. But I practiced a CD I ordered from USCRA that consisted of old contests, and I was making anywhere between zero to three errors. The actual contest material was considerably more difficult, and I had to hang on for dear life through the whole thing. Again, it was a challenge!

Any advice on contests – USCRA’s or in general?

SB | The key advice I have is to practice as much as possible with a variety of fast, difficult material several months in advance. Working in court or depositions, no matter how difficult, is not a substitute for practice.

DZ | Always read the rules beforehand. The USCRA contest was only one take, and printing in all caps was allowed. If that’s something that’s permitted, always do it! In the NCRA speed contest, you cannot print in all caps. In the NCRA realtime contest, all caps is only allowed in the literary take. So definitely read the rules and use something like all caps to your advantage. It can make a big difference or it could also mean the difference between qualifying and not qualifying or winning or not winning.

Court reporters and covenants not to compete

In an article posted Oct. 9 by The National Law Review, attorney Lawrence J. Del Rossi writes, in an installation to a multi-part series, about some jurisdictions where restrictive covenants involving court reporters are enforced.

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Shortage of stenographers hits Queens, N.Y., courts

A July 26 article in the Queens [N.Y.] Daily Eagle focused on the shortage of court reporters and captioners. The article includes quote from NCRA members Michelle Houston, RPR, and Eric Allen.

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COPE: Guidelines for conduct as an officer of the court

Donna Cascio

By Donna Cascio

“A fair and independent court system is essential to the administration of justice.” That is the first sentence of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Code of Conduct for Employees of the Unified Judicial System.

How can official reporters, as officers of the court, convey the values of impartiality and fairness that promote the integrity of the judicial system with “the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct”?(1)

We, as officers of the court, have the obligation to promote justice and assist in the effective operation of the justice system.

Of course, we are aware that our own Code of Professional Ethics demands that we be fair and impartial toward each participant and that we be alert to situations that give the impression of a conflict of interest or that give the appearance of partiality or impropriety.

We must be careful to convey that impartiality not only while on the record, but before and after court is in session. Could our actions, innocent as they may seem to us, be construed as favoritism by a stranger? Do your best to keep conversation before court is convened work-related — spellings of witnesses’ names, clarification of representation, updating addresses of counsel, and so forth.

When we are in our familiar surroundings, perhaps working with the same attorneys and court staff year after year, many of whom have become our friends, are we careful to avoid giving the impression of favoritism? Be cognizant of the impression you are making upon strangers, whether counsel or perhaps the parties, by your conversation and actions with familiar attorneys or court personnel.

I advise that when you are whispering or chuckling with the clerk or court officer before the judge comes in the courtroom, think about whether that conduct could appear to be commentary about attorneys or parties in the courtroom.

Please refrain from making that impression on others. Do your utmost to project professionalism in the courtroom, as your behavior is a reflection not only upon the judicial officer for whom you are working, but the entire justice system.

Put yourself in the shoes of a newcomer to your courtroom. Perhaps that newcomer is an attorney, perhaps a litigant. Be aware that your overly friendly conduct toward that newcomer’s opposing counsel or litigant can plant a seed of doubt in the newcomer’s mind. Any conduct that calls into question the impartiality and accuracy of the record is to be avoided.

In one particular jury trial in my court system, members of the court staff were conversing and joking with the court reporter in the courtroom during a recess. The defendant’s girlfriend was in the courtroom at the time and overheard a comment from someone in the group huddled about the court reporter’s desk. The comment was misconstrued by the girlfriend as a racist remark. It definitely was not. It was an innocent comment made by a jury officer, not the court reporter, and not a racist remark; but, taken out of context, that conduct had repercussions.

Not only was that defense attorney successful in requesting a mistrial based on the impression made upon the defendant and his girlfriend and their loss of faith in the integrity of the court personnel and court record, but all court personnel involved were ineligible to be assigned to any future case involving that defendant.

The reminder memo issued by the Court thereafter read, in part, “Remember that your actions as a court employee reflect not only on you, but also on the court and the judge to whom you are assigned.”

The point is that commenting, gesturing, whispering, or giggling can be interpreted by observers as conversation about them and could make them feel apprehensive at the very least, if not downright indignant or disrespected. The best course of action is to conduct yourself in a professional way, courteous to all, and not overly warm and friendly to your acquaintances when strangers are in your midst.

People now, more than ever, need to keep faith in the part of our Pledge of Allegiance that reads “…and justice for all.”

Donna Cascio, FAPR, RDR, CMRS, is a retired official from Somerset, Pa., and a member of the NCRA Committee on Professional Ethics. Questions about ethics can be sent to msavino@ncra.org.

 

(1) See Pennsylvania Rule of Judicial Administration 4006(C). All court reporting personnel are officers of the court with a duty to comply with all court regulations and orders and to maintain the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct.

Court reporter shortage pushing back trial dates in Horry County

WBTW News, Conway, S.C., aired a story on July 23 about how the national court reporter shortage is having an impact on Horry County courts.

Watch news story.