By Phyllis Craver Lykken
When judges were asked to answer questions about retaining court reporters in Pierce County Superior Court in Washington State, a study of 30 counties in the state was conducted and concluded what court reporters across America have known for decades: “there are no recording systems which can take the place of a court reporter currently.”
The reality is, when considering accuracy and expediency, coupled with the most cost-effective methods of capturing the record in courtroom after courtroom around the country, many courts of record are now choosing to retain and/or bring stenographic or voice court reporters back rather than relying on digital or analog recording systems.
The most stand-out reason is realtime translation and daily copy capabilities that are currently only available with a court reporter provide immeasurable benefits to judges and litigants alike. Using a court technician who simply records the proceedings adds an additional step in that the recordings of the proceedings need to be transcribed after the fact by an authorized transcriptionist or some other designated person.
“Based on our research, actual cost savings would be minimal at best with the court performance suffering greatly from the lack of real time reporting,” concluded the Pierce County Superior Court study. The study also indicated some of the costs which would have to be realized.
Pierce County judges and administration relayed they did not investigate another staffing model, “as our current staffing is working well for our court, and we have shown that we are not spending out of line with the other top six courts in Washington.” The courts referenced are Thurston, Clark, Snohomish, Spokane, Pierce, and King County Superior Courts. Pierce County has also been commended as “one of the top seven criminal case processing courts in the country.”
Some jurisdictions have chosen to experiment with recording systems. However, they have found that using recording systems in criminal or civil cases frequently causes court delays, increased costs, and equipment failures that result in expensive retrials. Recording systems require constant maintenance and upgrades as technology improves, resulting in unanticipated expenses to the court and increased personnel. The courts pay higher transcription costs for inferior transcripts; or if no transcripts are provided, the results are great increases of time and additional personnel costs at all levels of the judicial system as the text form of the record provides far greater judicial economy.
A list of states that have partially or fully returned to using court reporters in their courtrooms has been compiled by the National Court Reporters Association and is provided below.
In 2001, the state of Texas brought back stenographic reporters after trying both audio and video taping methods, citing realtime court reporting and the ability to have an immediate transcript; saving money during expert witness testimony by having the experts review the transcript from the day before instead of sitting through previous days of court; time and equipment involved in reviewing video testimony – taking at least five hours to review five hours of testimony, compared to 30 minutes to review the same transcript; inherent problems and inaccuracies in transcription of recorded proceedings; and unanticipated costs and additional personnel to perform all the functions that a stenographic reporter provides.
New Mexico started using recording systems in 1982. By 1986, the state brought back stenographic reporters, citing unexpected costs, frustrations, backlog of cases at the appellate level, and great increases of time and additional personnel costs with the tape systems. The state abandoned the systems and returned to faster and more cost-effective court reporters.
In 2008, legislation carried by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would prohibit the use of recording devices — rather than a stenographic record taken by a court reporter — in Supreme Court, county court, district court, and family court when delinquency cases are being heard and during jury trials in New York City Civil Court. The rationale behind the bill is based on complaints about the quality of the transcripts generated by electronic recordings, mostly in family and surrogate’s courts, but also in some criminal courts.
Court reporting services in capital cases: The plan shall prohibit the use of digital court reporting as the court reporting system and shall require the use of all measures necessary to expedite the preparation of the transcript, including but not limited to: (1) where available, the use of an approved court reporter who has the capacity to provide realtime transcription of the proceedings; and (2) if realtime transcription services are not available, the use of a computer-aided transcription qualified court reporter. Amended effective March 24, 2016.
The videotape systems installed in 1990 in the state of Illinois as an experiment sit idle. Chief Justice Richard C. Ripple said use of video is very limited. Other judges refuse to use it, stating they don’t want to watch television.
A.G. Webber IV, presiding judge of Macon County, Ill., recently indicated that “despite digital advancements the recording is still not as good as a live reporter.”
In 2004, officials in Oregon called for the return of court reporters instead of digital recording due to a series of missing or inaudible recordings. These instances include one hour of missing key witness testimony in a 2003 murder case; a retrial of a 2002 complex civil environmental case because the digital recording failed to record proceedings onto a compact disk; attorneys handling criminal appeals saying their clients’ rights are compromised by inaudible portions of recordings; and attorneys hiring their own court reporters for fear of an inaccurate record.
The disastrous loss of nearly 100 grand jury indictments caused by a tape recorder system malfunction has resulted in the state’s trial courts relying exclusively on court reporters, leaving tapes for minor proceedings such as motions.
Nevada Federal Courts and Commissions brought back stenographic reporters in 1995 after using tape systems for three years, citing higher costs and inferior service compared to realtime stenographic reporters.
Attorneys practicing in Jefferson County, Ky., courts in 2010 painfully remember when the digital audio recording equipment caused hundreds of hearings to be lost because the system failed to record any sound. Unfortunately, the failures in Jefferson County, which spanned at least a three-month period, are not isolated occurrences.
If you are an official and find yourself faced with yet another claim from yet another vendor touting the virtues of using recording equipment to replace stenographic or certified court reporters in your courtroom, don’t hesitate to contact NCRA to ask for help in providing documentation you may utilize to counter budgetary and other considerations for making a change that may not be best for the judicial process in your jurisdiction. The NCRA STRONG Committee has compiled many resources that dispute unsubstantiated claims that may convince your judges and court administrations to retain your services.
By Phyllis Craver Lykken, RPR, is a freelance court reporter from Seattle, Wash., and a member of the NCRA STRONG Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.