Jury trials in the midst of a pandemic

LegalNews.com posted an article on May 26 that examines how jury trials can resume in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more.

Has the legal system been knocked out by coronavirus? Ask the lawyer

In a blog posted May 5 by the Daily Breeze, El Segundo, Calif., attorney Ron Sokol addresses the impact COVID-19 has had on the legal system by writing: “In sum, it is going to take time for the courts to get up to speed after reopening, but the ingenuity and dedication of court staff will make sure the wheels keep turning. Patience has been and will be tested, but our legal system will certainly survive. … Bottom line: Do not underestimate our judges and their staff.”

Read more.

Growing number of state supreme courts meet remotely

An article about the growing number of state supreme courts meeting remotely was recently posted in @TheCenter, the official newsletter of the National Center for State Courts.

Read more.

Working in the new world of official court reporting

Kristie Dickinson, RPR, CRR

By Kristie Dickinson

In Michigan, I had been the owner of a freelance court reporting firm.  I took depositions and produced my own work but also produced the work of the women who worked for me.  I always worked 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.  It sounds like a lot, but the good thing about doing freelance work is that you can take breaks and vacations whenever you want.  My dog-walk breaks were about 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 6 p.m.  Neighbors sometimes asked if I worked because I was out walking in the middle of the day.  Little did they know.

When I moved to California, I knew work in the new world of official court reporting was going to be different because, for the first time since I was 22, I was going to be working for someone else.  I would be working inside the courts themselves versus taking out-of-court testimony.  It would be early to work and late getting home.  It would be no more dog walks whenever I wanted to stretch my legs.  It would be not having any say in the work that I reported.

Never having worked for someone else, I’m still trying to figure things out now, a year and three months later; so you can imagine how overwhelmed I felt the first few days and months.

The first day and a half consisted of a kind of class where they handed out materials and instructed us.  We learned what was expected of us, benefits we would receive, procedures, more benefits, dress codes, policies, and, well, more benefits.  I checked out after the first round of benefits so, to this day, I’m not really sure what else is floating around out there.  I decided to take it on an as-needed basis.

Then came the shadowing.  I would sit in with other reporters, getting exposed to the proceedings in different kinds of courtrooms.

One of the differences between depositions and courtrooms is that I feel very in control in a deposition.  There are usually three to six other people present in the room, and I feel like I run the show as far as telling people to slow down or to speak one at a time.

In a courtroom, the reporter is still expected to control things to make sure they make an accurate record; but, instead of three or four other people in the room, there can be anywhere from seven to twenty people looking at you like you can’t do your job when you tell someone to slow down.  There’s performance pressure.

Another difference is courtrooms can be very large, and the acoustics can be quite inadequate.  I suddenly wished I’d responded to that infomercial for the Miracle Ear.  There were mumblers, interrupters, heavy accents, interpreters speaking nearby that made me feel like I was hearing voices in my head, and then there were the often not-so-quiet conversations coming from the audience.  If the bailiff didn’t shush them, the reporter I was shadowing would tell people in the audience to be quiet.  For someone who prefers to remain invisible in a courtroom, raising my voice to tell people 30 feet away to zip it is daunting.

Vocabulary was another obstacle in the new world.  They pronounce things differently here.  For instance, they pronounce “voir dire” phonetically, whereas Michiganders pronounce it with a French flare.  I still chuckle when I hear people pronounce it here.

There were also new case names to learn, but the hardest things to learn were city names.  Because court reporters write things phonetically and by the syllable, switching from Midwestern names like Jonesville, Detroit, and Lansing to names like Palos Verdes, Aliso Viejo, and Santa Monica kept my fingers working overtime.  When “Rancho Cucamonga” came up, I wanted to say, “Aw, come on!  Now you’re just making stuff up!”  There’s nothing ending with “ville” here.

My job at the courthouse was to be a floating court reporter.  We didn’t have those in Lansing, Mich., so I was a little unsure what to expect.  Basically, unless assigned to a trial, I was working in a different courtroom with different staff every day.  I would cover for assigned reporters on vacation, or I would work in a courtroom with no assigned reporter.  Learning the ins and outs of each courtroom was a little daunting, and it made it difficult to make friends at first.  I would cover criminal, civil, family law, and probate proceedings.  Each area has its own distinct vocabulary, so coming up with brief forms for words like “conservatorship” and “income and expense declaration” became a necessity.

I started my job in December, so things were definitely slower around the holidays than the rest of the year.  I think the hardest thing to wrap my head around was the fact that I was still getting a paycheck for the same amount every week whether I was in the courtroom all day or getting some office time.  Not yet grasping that concept, I thought, when I didn’t have a backlog of transcripts to work on, how was I going to have any income?  I’ve always had a transcript backlog for the past 28 years.  No backlog equals no income equals no job stability equals no rent payment.  I panicked over this the first couple of months before realizing the whole stability-of-a-paycheck thing.

The hours at the new job are also very different.  They are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a lunch break.  The traffic wouldn’t allow me to get home to let my dogs out and then back over the lunch break, so I had to hire a dog walker to come every day at lunch to walk and feed them.  It was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I came home.  It seemed every waking hour was spent at work.  When I came home, I’d walk and feed the dogs and fall into bed, exhausted and overwhelmed.

On a brighter note, the cool thing about 8 to 5 and no heavy transcript load is that, for the first time in my life, my weekends were mine.  As the days grew longer, the evenings became mine as well.  For the last 28 years, every time I’d tried to do a vacation or yard work or anything besides transcript work, in the back of my mind would be a little voice saying, “You should be in your office working on that transcript.”  Suddenly, there were no transcripts I was expected to work on that couldn’t be done on my lunch break or off time in my office.  Suddenly, my time was actually mine, and that space in my mind had been cleared.  For the first time in a long time, I was able to live in the moment and more fully enjoy my life.

As things settled in over the next few months, I made some work friends and settled into a rhythm that became comfortable.  I found favorite courtrooms, and the scheduler would try to keep me in my favorites when possible.  Eventually, I got to transfer to a courthouse that was closer to home, and I could go home for lunch to take care of my puppsters.  There were fewer courtrooms in the new building and, just like in the previous building, I found favorites and am lucky to have a scheduler who tries to keep me where I’m happiest.  I’ve made new friends and am happy to go to a building filled with people I can talk to each day versus working from my home and living a life of only isolation and work.

My manager must have been a saint because, man, those first few months I can’t count the number of times he heard me say, “Well, in Michigan we do it this way.”  I’m sure in his mind he was thinking, “Well, you’re not in Michigan anymore.”

A few examples of differences would be no one orders mini transcripts or word indexes here.  I don’t know how they find anything without reading the entire transcript. 

In Michigan, each day yields a new volume beginning with Page 1.  In California, multiple days can be put into one volume, and page numbering is consecutive.  This means, if you took 15 pages of an appeal one day, you need to wait for the reporter who took 2,000 pages before you to finish their portion to give you a starting page number.  Oh, how I miss the days when I could do my 15 pages, get it off my desk, and not think about it again.

In Michigan, once the original transcript is prepared, they use the same transcript for the appeal.  In California, an attorney may order daily copy and receive the originals; however, if they appeal, the reporter needs to prepare a different version of the same transcript with a different cover page and different index.  The attorney must pay for the transcript again.  If they ordered real-time and/or a daily rough, they could end up paying for different versions of the same transcript three or four times.

In Michigan, starting, ending, and break times are put on the record.  In California court (at least in mine), the clerk is responsible for recording the times.  The reporter simply puts “On the record,” “Off the record,” and “Proceeding concluded” in the record.

This COVID-19 period of isolation is kind of like stepping back in time for me, in that I was accustomed to being home a lot and working from home in Michigan.  I’m trying to see it as a writing opportunity, but I look forward to returning to the bustle of a courthouse full of people to talk to.  I still haven’t found a brief form for “Rancho Cucamonga,” but maybe this period of isolation will be my opportunity to do that.

Happy Reporting!

Kristie Dickinson, RPR, CRR, is an official court reporter in Anaheim, Calif. She is the author of the Harbor Secret Series, the Nine Days In Greece Series, and the award-winning screenplay The Other Christmas List, all available on Amazon. She blogs about her move to California at Daterella.wordpress.com.

Official reporting in a remote environment

Anthony Frisolone’s remote office

By Anthony D. Frisolone

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many professionals to rethink how and where they work.  This holds true for official court reporters, most of whom are used to working in the courtroom. Working remotely is a mostly foreign concept for many official court reporters.

 For me, this all changed the week of March 16, 2020. We were informed by our superiors that we would be moving from a modified work schedule to a teleworking format.

Get in front of the situation: Make sure the courts know what you can do

The first thing any official reporter should do is take charge of the situation by having a talk with your judge or your supervisor and tell them that you are ready to do your job from home. During a conversation with my supervisor, I mentioned we can report proceedings remotely over the phone or by video. After an email exchange, she requested a list of what is available to the reporters to do our job from home. I presented three options: a better, best, and worst scenario of what’s available and what court reporters would find to be a good working situation. Respectively, the scenarios were using video conferencing, using telephone conferencing, and as a last resort, transcribing from the recorded phone calls. I included in my list products such as Stenograph’s CaseViewNet to provide realtime streaming if there was a deaf or hard-of-hearing person on the call.

It seems simple, but I credit what I learned at NCRA’s Legislative Boot Camp, which was what led me to advocate for the court reporters. I call it advocacy, because that is really what it was, but it was some conversations, text messages, and the emails mentioned above to show my supervisor what we could do. At first, we saw many of our judges were working from home and recording their conferences, a method which bypassed the live reporter. Ultimately, I made a proposal to the chief court reporter to advise the reporters to bring their machines home to cover court. I was given the okay by the chief reporter, and I spoke to my colleagues, who all agreed to do this. I again wrote to my supervisor and said we were ready to work from home and cover court remotely. She agreed this was a good idea but wanted a list of who would volunteer to cover court from home. This was a great opportunity for us as reporters to take charge of the situation by saying that we are available and ready to continue doing our jobs from home. 

Packing up and setting up again

I began the process of breaking camp, so to speak, on March 20. I cleaned my office, turned off anything that wasn’t essential, and backed up work to take home. I left my desktop computer on, so I could use Google Desktop to remotely retrieve files. I made sure my Dropbox and Case CATalyst Cloud Backup accounts were working properly for an added layer of protection for the storage and retrieval of my work. I had my machine packed up with everything necessary to report from home.

I did forget both of the chargers for my steno machine. So much for my “two is one and one is none” motto. It only works when you actually have what you need in your bag. I bought a charger when I got home. Leaving that day was far from the usual Friday departure, since I didn’t know when I would be coming back.

The new normal and my remote office

I went home and set up my basement for the first day of telework. My basement is the family gym, music room, game room, and now my home office. My spare office chair was set up with a computer table for my laptop and iPad. I had an extra power strip with a surge protector. I used my flat screen TV as a monitor for easier editing and for viewing my realtime while reporting. My telework setup consisted of my writer, laptop, iPad, and my iPhone.

Admittedly, I had no plan for working at home. I knew that I had to have structure in my day to provide a sense of normalcy. Living during a global pandemic can be nerve-wracking, and establishing a routine is important from the first day. I read articles online about teleworking, and my plan started to take shape. My goal was to mimic my workday and do everything at the exact time like I usually do. I woke up at my usual time, and I did all the things I do before leaving the house in the morning. I exercise just like I do at the courthouse gym at around 7:30, and then I get behind my computer at around 8:30 a.m. to read emails and do work before court. I try to have lunch at the same time I normally do. At night, I go to bed at the same time I normally do to keep my body’s clock on track for when things do get back to normal.

I will say it is nice to be home with my family and seeing them every day. Not having to sit in morning traffic is something I don’t miss either. So that’s a plus for me to teleworking.

My coworkers and I stay in contact using WhatsApp. We created a group chat to communicate with each other quickly. We have a separate group chat with our supervisor for court-related communication.

Telephone conferences can be challenging. To make them less challenging, I wrote guidelines for attorneys to follow that I email to each of them before the conference. I contacted the judge’s court clerk and got the telephone number and access code for the call. I’m keeping a list of those numbers for quick reference or to pass along to my coworkers. After I dial in, I report the proceeding as usual. I place my phone next to the internal mic on my computer for better sound quality. My writer has a mic attached as a backup. The telephone conferencing system that my court has uses a recording backup. If I need to interrupt, I do so. Speech can get garbled or attorneys with accents can make this challenging. At the beginning of the conference, I introduce myself to the parties to establish my role.

In addition to teleconferencing, we have one judge who prefers to use Jabber for video conferencing. It works, but there were some glitches that we resolved by working with our court’s IT department.

Engage: Don’t let social distancing prevent you from connecting

I wanted to fill my day, so I decided to give back to the profession. I feel that it is important to stay connected with each other and to build a sense of camaraderie. I am using my other role as a Stenograph Case CATalyst trainer to set up free or low-cost remote training to reporters as a way to learn new skills and to focus on something other than the news.

I first provided training to court reporters in the federal courts. In addition, I provided free or low-cost training to long-time clients who aren’t in the federal system. I followed up with an online steno swap for federal reporters. This has become a popular weekly gathering during the time I’ve been home. At the time of this writing, I am working on a third webinar. An attendee wrote to me after the first webinar and said that this helped her cope with the situation by feeling more connected to the outside world. 

This situation is not ideal and certainly something none of us have ever experienced. By taking control of the situation and working with the key stakeholders in the courthouse, we ensured that court reporters will continue to have a place at least in our courthouse. At home, creating a routine, exercising, eating right, volunteering my time, and staying in touch with family and friends to develop deeper connections has helped to make this situation easier to deal with and relieve the stress of the situation.

Anthony D. Frisolone, FAPR, RDR, CRR, CRI, is a federal official court reporter in the Eastern District of New York courthouse located in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is also a Stenograph Certified Case CATalyst Trainer. He would like to extend his special thanks to Monette Benoit who offered some great suggestions. Frisolone can be reached at AFrisolone@aol.com

City proclamation honors court reporters

KSAT-TV, San Antonio, Texas, posted a story about an official proclamation handed down to local court reporters by a district judge recognizing NCRA’s 2020 Court Reporting & Captioning Week.

Read more.

Court addresses ‘fundamental right’ to closed captioning in politics

Law.com reported on Jan. 6 that a civil rights lawsuit claiming the Florida Legislature should provide captioning on all live-streamed and archived proceedings has survived a motion to dismiss, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process was at stake.

Read more.

Nebraska Supreme Court recognizes NCRA member

News Channel Nebraska reported on Nov. 1 about official Court Reporter Kris Riekenberg, RPR, being recognized by the Nebraska Supreme Court for 30 years of service.

Read more.

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.

Read more.

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.