Iowa courts concerned about staffing shortages

Dwindling numbers of court reporters, fewer attorneys willing to be court-appointed attorneys, and growing caseloads for judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are sparking a need for more staffing across Iowa, according to an article posted by the Muscatine Journal on Aug. 20.

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A Helter Skelter Trial Memoir

By Early Langley

Nov. 19, 2017, marked the death of one of the most vile cult leaders and murderers in California history: Charles Manson. Much has been written about him, his loyal worshippers, the murders, and the trial. One of those books was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor, and writer Curt Gentry.

By the time I became a court reporting student, the evil of Charles Manson had become legend. Chapter after chapter of Helter Skelter flew by, dictated at high speeds. My teacher was right: Better to hear the worst of the worst now. Any reaction to testimony that inflames the mind might influence a jury.

Perhaps that is why, again as a student, I was able to sit quietly and listen, without emotion, to the gut-wrenching and brutal testimony of the four defendant “Zebra murders” that terrorized San Francisco in the 1970s. Police named the case “Zebra” after the special police radio band they assigned for the investigation. Years later, I met the dispatcher who sent out that radio call and named it “Zebra.” She is now a San Francisco Superior Court Clerk. She described how terrifying it was to walk to work. She once alarmed fellow coworkers by thumbing a ride at night. The car was filled with plainclothes officers in an unmarked car. She knew that, but her coworkers didn’t. In total, 16 people had been murdered, although some authorities thought the defendants might have killed as many as 73 people or more.

The trial started on March 3, 1975, and lasted close to a year-and-a-half, the longest criminal trial in California history at that time. I was only there towards the end. One juror conceived and delivered during the trial. After 18 hours of jury deliberation, based on testimony filling 8,000 pages of transcripts and of 108 witnesses, all four defendants were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, and all convictions were affirmed on appeal. Judge Joseph Karesh, who presided over the trial, was an exceedingly patient jurist. In spite of the heinous crimes and the helter-skelter nature of the trial, not one defendant was placed in shackles. There were no glass bulletproof barriers and no metal detectors. Clinton W. White, the defense attorney who led the team, was elevated to the California Court of Appeal.

Robert L. Dondero, then deputy district attorney, was also elevated to the California Court of Appeal. Tensions mounted during that trial, as they do in all trials. One defense attorney got palsy from the stress. Joe Ament was both my teacher and the official court reporter for the entire trial. His relief court reporter came close to a nervous breakdown at the end. Both retired soon afterwards.

I guess it wasn’t enough of a deterrent to keep me away from reporting trials, though I haven’t done a criminal trial since I was an official many years ago. My trials are civil now. I hear stories of great love and great despair, deep pain and deep gratitude.

I have a front row seat to courtroom drama. Good trial lawyers have a sixth sense of anticipating the next move. Their eyes circulate the landscape: the judge, the jury, the witness, the audience, and the staff — including you!

The tension for me is just as nerve-racking. Everyone’s looking at my iPads. Everyone’s getting the rough pretty close to immediately after the day ends, the final in the evening, and sometimes late into the evening. Here’s my list of to-do items: indexes, exhibits, witnesses’ testimony, and even sometimes keeping track of time.

Now I have students come in and sit. There’s nothing like the real thing. They marvel at it all. Through my UC Berkeley Alumni Externship Program, I even take college students to court. They go behind the scenes and meet the judge. We discuss the importance of law, public policy, and a court reporter’s record.

I love it when court reporting students can sit in for as long as possible. It teaches them endurance and speed, procedure and decorum, and the anatomy of a trial. If I were to pin down one of the most important assets to have, it’s speed. Trials move fast and furious. Once the judge announces the jury’s deliberation date, it’s a race to the finish line. Rates of speed get high and sustained.

Trials have a helter-skelter nature of their own. And you just gotta love it. Yes, it can be exhausting. Yes, you need to anticipate the unexpected and have backup plans. Yes, you need to do your homework on the technological terms that you’ll hear. Yes, you need to get your realtime and all of your files running. Once that’s set up, you can manage any helter-skelter moment!

Early Langley, RMR, B.A., is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. She is a member of the NCRA Education Content Committee. She is past president of the California Court Reporters Association and a senior staff reporter with Aiken Welch Court Reporters.

Court reporter shortage in San Mateo County, Calif.

The Daily Journal, San Mateo County, Calif., reported on July 12 that due to a severe court reporter shortage, the county’s Superior Court will no longer provide official court reporters for certain court proceedings as it actively seeks to expand its court reporter resources.

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Shortfall leaves attorneys, court reporters in a lurch as Florida governor ponders budget

The Orlando Sentinel reported on June 13 that a $17 million shortfall at an agency that pays indigent criminal defendants for legal counsel means state vendors supplying court reporters, private investigators, and expert witnesses are going without pay for at least two months.

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A most unique situation to report

Photo by the Hon. Melba Marsh

Earlier this month, NCRA member Taleesa Smith, RPR, an official court reporter from Hamilton County, Ohio, found herself reporting a sentencing proceeding from outside of an ambulance.

“This was the most unique situation for me as a court reporter,” said Smith, who has been an official court reporter since 1997.

“When I went to court that morning, the bailiff told me we were taking a plea outside in the ambulance because the defendant was not able to come up to the courtroom in the elevator because he was a very large man and very ill with oxygen and had trouble breathing,” she said.

Turns out, Smith was the official court reporter for a case that made national news. The case was that of a 600-pound drug dealer who was being sentenced after pleading guilty to cocaine trafficking and being a felon in possession of a gun. Because of his size and health-related condition, the proceeding took place in an ambulance since he could not be moved into the courthouse.

Because of the defendant’s size, there was no room in the ambulance for Smith to set up her machine, she said.

“It was raining that day. I extended the tripod as far as I could, and I stood at the back of the ambulance. The judge was halfway in and halfway out of the ambulance. The bailiff and EMT personnel held umbrellas over me so my steno machine would not get wet,” Smith explained.

“It was very noisy because of the rain and because the engine was still running on the ambulance. It was just a simple plea and sentencing,” she added.

Smith said she was very pleased at how the presiding judge took his time with the defendant, asking him if there was anything he needed or if he needed water.

“The defendant, when asked if he had anything he wanted to say, just muttered, ‘my throat.’ He was able to answer all the questions with a yes or no, but that was all,” Smith added.  

Careers in court reporting: From Grandma’s diner to Rick Springfield

Aaron, Adam, and Kenneth Alweis

By Heidi Renner

Brothers Adam and Aaron Alweis recently each reached career milestones. They were both named the chief reporter for their respective courts in the New York State Unified Court System this year. Aaron, RPR, CRR, CRC, is chief in the 6th District and Adam, RPR, in the 5th District, but their careers as court reporters started well before 2019.

Their father, Edward, was a court reporter who retired in 1989, and they also had two uncles and an aunt who worked in the profession. It can all be traced back to their grandmother who owned a diner in Miami Beach in the 1940s. One day a court reporter came in, sat down, and ended up telling her all about his job. She decided it sounded like a great opportunity and told her children that’s what they should do. Their father had just started in court reporting when he went in the Army and worked in the Judge Advocate General Corps. They say it probably saved him from going overseas to Korea.

“We grew up in the profession,” Adam said. “We had some involvement most of our lives. It sort of just happened that way.”

Aaron said their father thought it was very important for them to have a marketable skill. They also say credit must go to the tremendous support their mother, Mary, has given to their father and how encouraging and supportive she has always been to her three boys.

“I was typing transcripts for my father since I was 12 years old,” Aaron said.

“I got out of school and within 12 hours, I was doing my first deposition,” Adam said.

At one time the family owned a freelance reporting agency and all three brothers worked for it. The third brother, Ken, is now a lawyer and partner in the firm of Goldberg Segalla.

Both brothers remember their father saying: “Thank God I found this profession; otherwise, I don’t know what I’d end up doing.”

Aaron went to graduate school for business, which he said has worked very well with being a court reporter. He was looking for a marketing position after college but didn’t find one, so he went back to court reporting and has stayed there.

Both Adam and Aaron started official court reporter positions and have been working in the courts for years.

They talk to each other often about their jobs.

“We bounce ideas off each other all the time,” Adam said.

Aaron has taught his children to scope, but he said none of them have wanted to start a career in court reporting. They both say they are in a profession where you are never bored.

“You’ll never find another profession where you are continually challenged by the material in front of you,” Adam said.

“It’s fascinating, it’s better than TV, it’s a front-row seat to history,” Aaron said. It’s a tremendous field. You can come into the field from any background. Whatever you bring into it adds to your knowledge base.”

Aaron said he remembers the first time he offered realtime in 1992 in a case involving a defendant who was deaf. Back then, offering realtime involved carrying a 50-pound computer into the courtroom. They also set up a viewing area for people from the community who were deaf and wanted to watch the proceedings.

“The advantages today are just tremendous,” Aaron said. “I recently did a CART assignment (outside court) where I sat with a hearing-impaired person at a conference. They were so appreciative to have access to what was going on. It’s because of the court reporting profession that people can do this. You make a difference in people’s lives.” Aaron also said he has been “incredibly fortunate to have the support and love and understanding from my wife, Miriam, through all of the very long hours involved in being a court reporter.”

“The advantages are far more than when we started,” Adam said. “We didn’t have realtime or captioning. Now with the technology, there is so much people can do with us. We are dying to have new blood come into the profession. This is a great field to get into; people should really think about it.”

While every day brings something new in their careers, both brothers have some cases that stick in their minds more than others.

Aaron remembers a case involving the death of the former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin and through that meeting some very interesting people.

Adam Alweis taking the testimony of Rick Springfield

Adam remembers an unusual case involving singer Rick Springfield being sued.

Adam said when Springfield got up to testify, he was fascinated at what Adam was doing and asked how he did it. Adam told Springfield it was like writing music, and the keys are like putting notes together.

“If it helps, you can think of me as the rock-and-roll court reporter,” Adam told him.

Legal aid groups dismayed by slow rollout of court reporter mandate

Courthouse News reported on May 17 that legal aid lawyers in California were left frustrated and disappointed by the Judicial Council on Friday, saying an amendment to a rule regarding free court reporters for poor litigants doesn’t go far enough.

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Tennessee law gives criminal court reporters pay increase

Tennessee Court Reporters Association members convinced state legislators to adopt a law to increase pay for criminal court reporters.
Tennessee Court Reporters Association members convinced state legislators to adopt a law to increase pay for criminal court reporters.

The Tennessee legislature passed a pay increase for criminal reporters in the state. The bills, SB 667 and HB 729, were passed through both state houses with the support of the Tennessee Court Reporters Association (TCRA) legislative committee, and the bills were fully funded in the state budget. The increase is expected to go into effect July 1.

Getting this bill through the houses and signed into law was quite the coup for Tennessee reporters, according to NCRA President-Elect Max Curry, RPR, CRI, who spearheaded the legislation. “A little more than 10 years ago, Tennessee did away with the employee status of criminal reporters in Tennessee and has moved to a contractual status for the criminal courts around Tennessee. Due to the substantially lower amount in per diem and page rate offered by the criminal courts, more and more stenographic reporters were refusing to cover the work in lieu of more lucrative private sector work. The situation was creating a shortage of coverage by stenographic reporters in the criminal court system, and the Administrative Office of the Court (AOC), which administers the criminal reporters in Tennessee, had begun training electronic recording reporters to cover the criminal courts. Of course, as an association we don’t want that, so we got to work on trying to find a solution,” Curry said. 

“The clearest solution was to increase the funds being paid to attract stenographic reporters,” explained Curry. “The AOC expressed a lack of willingness to move the rate up.  We were only asking for them to increase it to the same rate as that offered by other state entities that use stenographic reporters for their hearings, depositions, EUOs, arbitrations, etc., including the Department of Labor, Department of Health, Department of Transportation, and so on. All of these organizations offered higher rates. The AOC couldn’t even compete with the other State entities, much less on an open market. The situation was spiraling out of control quickly, with the AOC offering no solutions that kept the stenographic reporters involved.

“Since the new rate is competitive with other state entities, we feel this will effectively correct the issue and get the criminal courts back on an even keel with the other state entities,” Curry continued. “It will simply be up to the AOC to do rate increases to keep up with inflation and what the other State entities are offering.”

The legislation moved through the process quickly. Every other year, Tennessee’s legislature runs on a fast track, and 2019 was a fast-track year.  “Over three months, we managed to maneuver the bill through the committee/subcommittee system of both House and Senate, work with the legislature on balancing out the fiscal impact of the bill as a law, and get it passed,” said Curry. “It was passed on the final evening of the 111th Tennessee Legislature being in session this year. We literally did this just under the wire of one legislative session, which is next to impossible!

“I took the lead on lobbying to work the bills through the process in the Tennessee House and Senate. Various people from our committee would show up for some of the interviews with legislators, and I would be remiss not to mention them. They were: Dana Webb, TCRA president when the process started; Stephanie Falkner, CRI, CPE, TCRA’s state president as we finished up; Sheila Wilson, TCRA past president and legislative committee member; Sheryl Weatherford, RPR, another TCRA past president and legislative committee member; and Peggy Giles, another wonderful reporter who was part of the legislative team. Each of these people took turns to accompany me to meetings with legislators and advocated for and educated the legislators about our bill and about the court systems in Tennessee and how court reporters are used. In addition, criminal court reporters Lisa Moss, Lori Bice, Gloria Dillard, and Kim Davidson, and many others would show up for subcommittee or committee meetings to show their support of this legislation,” Curry said. “Many of TCRA’s members were involved in the grassroots portion, too, and they did a stellar job of emailing and calling legislators’ offices. I would often hear from the state senators and representatives that people were reaching out and how impressed they were with how organized it all was.”

When asked what he credits the success to, Curry said: “First, we had an excellent game plan. Sheila, Stephanie, and I had all been to NCRA’s Boot Camp in the past, so we had the training. Also, Sheila, Peggy, and I had been through the legislative efforts previously in Tennessee, so all three of us knew how the process worked, and we worked very hard to educate and train the others. In addition, our grassroots organization and ability to get info out to the membership via email blast at a moment’s notice was truly impactful as well…. and they then took action as a group!  Engagement meant everything!

“Most importantly, we had Judge Dee Gay, who is a criminal courts judge here in Tennessee, who worked with us closely, advocated for us, and got us in touch with key legislators to help us,” Curry continued. “One of the attorneys who practices in front of Judge Gay regularly is William Lamberth, who happens to be a State of Tennessee Representative, and who more importantly happens to be the Majority Leader in the House and was our House bill sponsor! This was impactful and quickly opened doors and conversations for us. We did the leg work, and he worked the power struggle in the back. He also worked very hard at making sure we found the money in the budget to address the fiscal impact of this bill as a law. Leader Lamberth also recruited as our senate sponsor a very powerful ally: Pro Tem Speaker of the House Sen. Ferrell Haile!

“That’s not to say that the process was free of problems. While the legislative committee was working to get the legislature to pass the bill to increase pay to the criminal court reporters, two competing bills were also working their way through the process. It took additional education and lobbying to make sure that the legislators understood the impact of these other bills,” explained Curry.

“One of the bills we called the ‘Free Copy Bill,’ which basically would allow litigants (or anyone for that matter) to get a free copy of the transcript once the original was purchased and filed with the court. The second bill was to install an audio recording system in every single courtroom in the state of Tennessee. Because of our involvement, the legislators just let these bills die in committee,” said Curry. “This has been an amazing legislative year in Tennessee and one I’m proud to have been a part of!”

Hidalgo County court reporters receive pay bump

Official court reporters working in Hidalgo County, Texas, will see a substantial bump in pay on their next paycheck after the county’s Commissioners Court Tuesday unanimously approved a request to increase their salary, according to an article posted April 25 by The Monitor.

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NCRA member part of effort to exonerate man

NCRA member Lisa Black’s firm, Migliore & Associates, provided pro bono services in a case where a Florida man was exonerated after 14 years behind bars.

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