Judiciary budget may recover

The U.S. Congress has agreed to a budget that will fund the federal government, including the judiciary, through 2015. According to a Dec. 11 blog on the Legal Times, the agreement could ease at least some of the cuts to the judiciary’s budget. The blog noted that, as Congress debated budget issues in fall, both houses approved budgets that would, “at a minimum, roughly restore money to the judiciary to pre-sequestration levels.”

Read more.

Special report: A looming shortage of court reporters

A special report that highlights an expected shortage of court reporters recently aired on KIMT-TV, which serves Des Moines, Iowa, and the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. According to the report, nearly 60 percent of reporters who are currently working are slated to retire over the next decade. The story features comments from a district court judge about the important role court reporters play in the judicial system, as well as insight about the court reporting program at Anoka Technical College in Minnesota by program director Jennifer Sati and plans by the Des Moines Area Community College to start a similar program in the coming year.

Read more and see the broadcast here.

 

San Francisco Superior Court calls back official court reporters

The San Francisco Superior Court gave five official reporters the opportunity to return to full-time employment with the court. The five officials were the last of the original 24 officials laid off in the fall of 2011.

According to the California Officials Court Reporters Association website, the move by the court was seen as a positive development by the union representing official reporters in San Francisco Superior Court.

South Carolina hires private court reporters to prevent court cancellations

An article in the Sept. 15 Augusta [S.C.] Tribune reported that the state’s courts have been hiring private court reporters to prevent court cancellations. The need is a result of the addition of nine judges in the family and circuit courts as well as a number of court reporter vacancies across the state that have gone unfilled. According to the article, the private reporters have worked in Aiken, Lexington, Richland, and York counties, and court was canceled in Aiken County for two days when the state did not provide a reporter.

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What’s happening in the courthouse?

What's happening in the courthouse

Budget cuts in many states have led to increased concern about the continued place of court reporters in U.S. courts. The reality is far more varied.

It has been a challenging decade for state, local, and county official court reporters, to say the least. Not only have they been routinely targeted by judicial bureaucrats seeking cost savings by implementing recording technology, but they’ve also at times been swept up in the new privatization of government services trend, with courtrooms replacing officials — and their pensions and benefits — with independent reporters working on a per diem basis.

SO HOW IS THE OFFICIAL COURT REPORTING COMMUNITY HOLDING UP?

While that largely depends on not only who you ask, but where you go, for the most part, it can be characterized as not as good as it used to be, but not quite as bad as initially feared. In some states, such as Texas, there are even opportunities for young court reporters to embark on a career as an official provided they’re willing to start by working in a remote part of the state. Other states, such as Oregon, have no official reporters outside of the federal courts — and despite at least one high profile case involving a problematic digital audio recording of the penalty phase of a capital murder trial, there’s very little chance of reporters being put back on the payroll full-time any time soon. [Ed. note: There is a bill pending in Oregon that would require a court reporter on capital cases.]

It’s also interesting to note how the strategies employed by official reporters and the state court reporting associations that often go to bat on their behalf can vary dramatically from state to state. In California, for example, court reporters have largely succeeded in keeping out electronic recording, though independent reporters are now being brought in and paid for by the attorneys in civil cases in counties where some or all officials have been laid off. (See sidebar on page 40 for more about California’s changing landscape.) In contrast, in King County, Wash., the relatively successful focus of the unionized official reporters was on allowing electronic recording for some trials but keeping outside reporter from hearing cases.

And in Florida, the battle to keep out digital has resulted in a compromise of sorts: a mixture of digital audio, officials, and contract independents from local firms who work per diem, all of which is determined by the chief judge in each circuit. “The pendulum has swung and the courts have reached their own water level in terms of reporting methods,” says Sandra Estevez, current president of the Florida Court Reporters Association. “The power of the purse dictates the needs of the courts and hybrid methods utilized.”

In some states, you can find a silver lining if you look hard enough. Even California has Fresno County where there are still plenty of officials on staff, even as other counties have laid off all the official court reporters and privatized trial work.

If there is any lesson to be gained from looking at official court reporters in different states, it’s the notion of geography playing a role in destiny. If you’re fortunate enough to work as an official in a state or county with court administrators who value the integrity of the record over real or supposed budget savings, you have some job security. If not, then it doesn’t matter if you’re the most professional and skilled reporter in any courtroom — your job will likely be affected at some point, if it hasn’t been already.

Because of those disparities, this article is not meant to be an all-encompassing overview of how officials are faring. Rather, it’s a snapshot of sorts of what’s happening in various parts of the country and how officials reporters are either adjusting or battling the changes that are being proposed to their jobs.

With that caveat in place, here’s a look at the good, the not-so-good, and the somewhere in-between for officials across the country.

TEXAS OFFERS OPPORTUNITIES

There were numerous states that declined the opportunity to participate in this story, with several suggesting these were far too sensitive times to talk about this issue publicly. But of the ones that did, you would be hard to find a place better to be an official court reporter these days than Texas.

While there had been a bit of chatter about electronic recording or reducing the number of officials in Texas in the past, none of it was serious and none has been that recent, says Glyn Poage, RDR, CRR, an official court reporter in Texas’s 166th District Court in Bexar County in the San Antonio area and NCRA Vice President.

“We really haven’t had to fight back because it hasn’t really happened that much,” Poage says. “The reason official reporters have done so well in Texas is that we have the support of our legislature and of the Supreme Court of Texas. It’s been a real team effort centered on protecting the record and protecting the rights of everyone involved in the legal system.”

Poage explained that the court reporters in Texas are all employed by counties that handle statutory as well as district court trials and hearings. “Each reporter is assigned to a particular judge. But if that judge is not in court for a reason, the court reporter will be assigned to another courtroom for that day,” he says, and adds that unlike other states, younger reporters can still aspire to become state officials, provided they’re willing to venture to the state’s more rural areas and work for a judge who’s covering three or four counties.

Because of their success in keeping official court reporters in the state’s courtrooms, Poage said he is occasionally asked by colleagues in other states for advice, and he has to concede there’s no secret strategy to Texas’s success.

“Some of it has to do with the fact that so many of our legislators are actual trial attorneys, and they don’t want have to track down a transcript from someone who’s not in the courthouse,” Poage says. “Also, our official reporters really do stress dependability and professionalism — Texas is a CSR state and the Supreme Court of Texas oversees the test and the certification.”

“It comes down to the fiscal responsibilities of those in charge. Court reporters really don’t make money decisions; we just do our job. In Texas, the legislature and the others who make funding decisions — and keep in mind that Texas is a growing state with a good economy — have handled it very well and been able to provide services for the residents of our state. It’s them, and it’s not us,” Poage says.

OREGON’S MIXED BAG

When electronic recording companies began making their cost saving pitch across the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, Oregon was one of the states that bought into it hook, line, and sinker. The state courts laid off most of the state’s official court reporters and installed electronic recording systems from For the Record, known by many as FTR. The clerks in the courtroom were given the additional duty of monitoring that equipment, making the recording, and labeling them and storing them.

There are still official reporters in Oregon’s federal courthouses, says Robin Nodland, RDR, CRR, of LNS Court Reporting and Videoconferencing, based in Portland, Ore. And not every case in Oregon is electronically recorded.

“If a particular litigant wants a reporter in the courtroom, they can hire them privately,” Nodland says. “So in reality, it’s been a cost shifting and not a cost savings.” She adds that in some civil cases, opposing counsels agree to split the cost for a reporter.

“When we go into a courtroom, there’s a form that we need to get all the parties to sign that stipulates that we are the official record — otherwise it’s the digital recording that is the official record. The other requirement is that you must be a certified shorthand reporter, which is our state designation, or a registered professional reporter, which is the NCRA certification, or higher.”

The removal of officials has provided a modest boost to court reporting firms in Oregon as they can now count on some trial work as part of their day-to-day business. “A lot of firms have reporters who used to do trial work as officials,” Nodland says. “They love trial work, and they love going back there and handling it. But it’s not a full-time job for any reporter.”

What’s stunning about Oregon is how quickly they got rid of their official court reporters, not just for run-of-the-mill traffic and misdemeanor cases, but for everything, including aggravated murder cases where the death penalty in a possibility. One high-profile Oregon murder case — that of Randy Guzek, convicted and sentenced to death for a 1987 double murder — led to decades of appeals centered on whether new evidence can be provided during the sentencing phase of a trial. Some of those appeals were in courtrooms where digital audio was used and the quality of those recordings was so poor, it triggered calls from the Oregon’s leading newspapers, the Oregonian, to bring back court reporters at the very least for capital murder trials. There is a bill currently before the Oregon Senate to require just that, but at our deadline, the bill’s fate remained uncertain.

MIDDLE GROUND

For most states, the situation for officials is far less draconian. Many still have official reporters, just not nearly at the numbers they were several years ago. New Jersey is a good example of this. “When I left my position as an official court reporter in 1996, there were 210 officials in New Jersey. Now we’re down to fewer than 40,” says Robert Boccolini, RPR, current president of the New Jersey Certified Court Reporters Association.

This decline in numbers has been slow but steady, and Boccolini says that it’s all attrition rather than lay-offs. “The state did have a plan a few years back to hire a few reporters who were either realtime certified or planning to become realtime in the next two years,” he says. “But that ended up adding fewer than 10 — and since then people who have retired have not been replaced.”

Virtually all of the remaining New Jersey officials are providing realtime for their judges, including one Newark reporter whose judge is hearing impaired. “If not for realtime, we would be gone,” Boccolini says. “It saved the jobs that are still there by making them more valuable.”

But because of their reduced numbers, New Jersey official reporters, all of whom are employed by the state rather than individual counties, tend to focus on only criminal cases, save for special circumstances such as highly complex civil trials with multiple litigants on both sides.

But as Boccolini says, “How can somebody make a decision that somebody’s civil case is less important than a criminal case. True, you could argue you’re not just going to lose your money [in a criminal case], you’re going to lose your liberty. But if you’re a plaintiff in a civil case, and you’ve got catastrophic injuries due to negligence in traffic accident, who says one trial isn’t as important as another?”

It was exactly that kind of issue that prompted the official court reporters in King County, Wash., to go to management to work out a method to prioritize criminal and civil cases, starting at the top on the criminal side with murder, serious assault, and rape, and then to cases involving young children because digital audio can’t often pick up their quiet voices. The priority then shifts to complex civil litigation that involve multiple attorneys asking for services such as daily transcripts, because it’s a lot harder to get transcripts from electronic recordings in an expedited fashion.

“In King County, it used to be a one-on-one: every judge had a court reporter. There were 39 reporters here about 10 years ago,” explained Michelle Vitrano, RDR, CRR, CPC, an official with King County for the past 23 years. “And then the budget started getting bad, and they installed more FTR. Now we have 11 reporters in downtown Seattle and four in our regional courthouse in Kent, so 15 total reporters for 55 judges.”

Vitrano says that when there is no court reporter available, the judge has to turn to electronic recording. “We’re unionized and we have fought very hard not to allow outside reporters into our courtrooms,” she says. “But we are losing two people this year, and it’s getting very busy. We’re running from court to court, and we’re all providing realtime. So it’s crazy around here, but we are still employed.”

Other counties — all official reporters in Washington state are employed by the county and not the state — seem to doing as well if not better than King County. Vitrano suggests the worst may be over, saying: “They’ve pretty well got all the cost savings they can out of us.”

For other states, success is measured by how close they’ve been able to maintain the status quo.

In Tennessee, for instance, officials organized quickly to beat back an attempt by the state Administrative Office of the Courts in 2010 to first replace staff official reporters with contract reporters hired on a per diem basis and then eventually replace those workers with contract workers who would monitor electronic recordings.

“The officials gathered as much information and documentation as possible, in the limited time we had to work with, regarding outcomes in other states that had eliminated officials in the past and presented it to our judges,” says one official who requested anonymity. “The judges were extremely supportive of the official reporters and resisted this attempt by the AOC to eliminate reporters from the criminal courts. We were eventually notified that there would not be any further cuts at that time. Personally, I think they were surprised by the strong resistance they encountered from the judges.”

Even with that victory, fewer than 30 official court reporters remain employed by the state and none work in civil court. If attorneys want something other than a digital audio recording, they have to hire a reporter privately to come in for that trial or hearing. But for now at least there are no plans to eliminate any more official positions, the source adds, “I think our judges are the reason Tennessee still has court reporters in the courts today.”

Some states are seeing a change even now. In 2009, due to budgetary issues, many Iowa state court employees, including reporters, were laid off due to budget constraints. As of July 1, however, Iowa has been advertising that it wants to fill 12 court reporter positions across the state. “Iowa reporters have worked hard at being team players within the judicial branch. Our Supreme Court officials, as well as many district associate, and juvenile judges, and the state bar, support and value steno reporters. The addition of 12 new positions is proof of that,” says Sarah Hyatt, RPR, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, current president of the Iowa Court Reporters Association. “And when Iowa’s budget was finally able to more fully fund the courts, we were thrilled that the decision was made to hire additional qualified reporters.”

 

California and the wild west of court systems

California may no longer be the Wild West, but you wouldn’t know by looking at the state’s court system and both how and when transcripts and the official record are being created there.

Thanks to a concerted lobbying and legal effort led by groups such as the California Court Reporters Association, there is very little electronic recording in California county courts, and most of the ER is used for misdemeanors and traffic hearings.

But the success in keeping digital audio out hasn’t prevented some county governments in the state from laying off some — or in the case of Placer County, all — of its official court reporters. The result right now is that California has a little bit of everything. Placer County, for instance, has outsourced all its trial work to a single private court reporting firm after a bidding process.

Los Angeles County, like other California counties, has laid off a portion of its official reporters, largely in civil courts, forcing attorneys who want a record and a transcript to hire a private court reporter.

“Officials are definitely out in some counties,” says Kristi Garcia, a Fresno County official court reporter and current CCRA president. “Not in all counties but in some counties, they’ve taken reporters out of family law courts. But independent reporters can go in there, so that’s a win for court reporters. We’re just glad there’s a court reporter in the courtroom and not electronic recording.”

The reason for that victory was a lawsuit against California’s Administrative Office of the Courts for putting in electronic recording in courtrooms when it didn’t have the funding to do so from the state legislature, a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Garcia notes that in misdemeanor courts, there is some electronic recording, but all felonies still must be reported by a court reporter. “For civil trials, they all bring in their own,” she says, adding that for probate and for family law, there may not be either digital audio or a live court reporter. “Sometimes there’s no record at all because there is no reporter and they’re not recording. So when you’re fighting for your kid in family court, there’s going to be no record.”

The lack of certainty about whether a trial will have a record is triggering some angst in the state’s legal community, says Sandy Bunch VanderPol, RMR, CRR, an independent reporter in Lotus, Calif. “A lot of the attorneys are getting frustrated because they would rather have something in there, but they don’t want to pay to have a court reporter,” says VanderPol.

But for VanderPol, whose resume includes stints as CCRA president as well as being both a firm owner and independent reporter, all these changes in how trials are reported recently gave her the opportunity to do something once considered rare for a private independent reporter: She handled a case for a client from start to finish, beginning with the depositions and running all the way through the trial.

She’s not alone. “I have a very good client base for depositions and that’s what I would prefer to do, but there are a lot of reporters that are now doing trials along with depositions,” VanderPol says. While no one will admit it for attribution, the presence of independent reporters in trials doing a job that used be handled by an official has, on occasion, generated some tension, though not recently. “When the client of the depo reporter asks them to come in and do the trial, and the officials that were in that courthouse see that, they’ve became upset, so it was a big deal,” says one reporter who requested anonymity to speak freely about this topic. “Now everyone can see the big picture and realize they shouldn’t be mad at their own profession; we should be mad at the people laying us off.”

Notably, the layoffs that have impacted California officials hasn’t really changed the demand for good trial reporting. “It’s not that there’s less need for reporters in courtrooms,” VanderPol says. “It’s just that we’re doing our jobs differently because now you have to get hired by a litigant rather than being on salary by the court.” But it is starting to create some downward price pressure as exofficials compete with both firms and independent reporters for trial work. “These days you’ve got to cut a lot of deals to get any business,” says one source. The other big change is that ex-official reporters are now beginning to think and act like small businesspeople rather than California government employees.

 

God bless our happy home

Divorce court — sometimes called domestic court or family court — has probably seen the most changes during the last quarter of the 20th century. In the late 1970s, the idea that there might be some other partner waiting in the wings for the divorce to become final was very hush-hush. In custody matters, it was taboo to co-habitate with someone other than the spouse, and if a father or mother wanted to see their children for visitation, it would be necessary for the third party to be scarce for the visitation period of time.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was acceptable to have a third party around or even co-habitate, as long as the children were not subjected to inappropriate actions.

Domestic court definitely reflected the changing morals of the country by the time the mid- to late-90s rolled around. One of our first cases on our last rotation through this bastion of raw emotions involved temporary orders (those to be in place during the pendency of the action), and whether it was appropriate for a sixyear- old to visit his father who had left his mother to move in with another man and for the boy to stay overnight in a one-bedroom apartment with the two men. The father saw absolutely nothing wrong with the arrangement and wanted to indoctrinate the boy into his new lifestyle.

There are fringe players involved in family court. These include child custody investigators, social workers, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Each time I spent a rotation in domestic, I would marvel at what the psychobabble of the day was. Our last watch involved mostly people who were thought to be bipolar.

•••

One of our early cases in domestic court in Denver involved a couple who had married after their spouses of the first three quarters of their lives had passed on. The wife was 78 and the husband was 79 when the dissolution hearing took place. They had been married about five years earlier. It was important to the husband that he was seen as being cooperative by the court.

Q. Are you married to the petitioner?

A. Yeah, we had a pretty wild life, but she wants to get divorced, so that’s fine with me. Whatever she wants. We had a wild time, though.

Q. Do you understand you have a right to request maintenance in this case?

A. Yeah. I’ll be glad to mow the lawn and take care of the place. Anything you want me to do in the house, I’ll be glad to do it.

Q. And the maintenance I’m referring to is what we used to call alimony?

A. Yeah.

Q. And that’s what I’m asking about is alimony?

A. Yeah. Anything she wants is fine. I’ll mow it every week. Do whatever she needs.

Q. All right, but as far as alimony or maintenance, you understand that you can’t come back at a later date and ask for it?

A. Yeah. We want to be good friends. She’s a wonderful, wonderful woman. We belong to the same church.

MS. WALSH: Great. I have no further questions, Your Honor.

THE COURT: All right. You may step down.

When the husband stepped down from the witness stand, he walked over to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and shook and kissed her hand. It really was a lovely gesture.

•••

Little problems and their resolution can take on a whole new importance in divorce court. For instance, when we moved to Courtroom 21, the previous staff took their water pitchers for counsel tables and the witness stand. Not thinking much of it, we simply ordered a new set. The water pitchers that were delivered had very strange lids that simply popped open when a certain angle was reached. Gravity, maybe? In any event, we were in a hearing right after the pitchers were delivered. The bailiff filled them with water and promptly put them in their places. None of us had tried the pitchers ourselves, so we had no idea that if anyone tipped the pitcher just a millimeter too far, the entire contents of the vessel would rush out. Of course, it wasn’t something that should be humorous, to see a slick divorce attorney, who was callously cross-examining the other party in the case with no mercy, pick up a cup and the pitcher and start to pour himself some water at a tense moment, only to be totally drenched a moment later. It shouldn’t be humorous, but it was.

We really were mortified and promptly put a note on the top of the lids urging caution.

While this seemed to help some people, others seemed to read the note — which absolutely couldn’t be missed — and promptly did that which was warned against.

Our next step was to take the lids off in the hope that people would be more careful. That solution was quickly nixed when a large fly landed in the pitcher by the witness stand in the middle of testimony.

Finally, the pitchers were emptied and put on the top of a cabinet in the rear of the courtroom. We had ordered a set of a different kind of pitcher, but what had taken only a day or two to receive the week before, now took two weeks. To our horror, we entered the courtroom after taking the docket call to begin the first hearing and the water pitchers has mysteriously reappeared on the counsel tables. We launched right into the case, so nothing was said at that point, but it wasn’t long before water was dripping off petitioner’s counsel table and petitioner’s attorney was running around the table trying to keep the exhibits dry.

Well, at the next recess we moved the pitchers into the conference room and placed them on the top shelf of the coat rack. No one should be able to get them from there.

It was hit-and-miss water-wise for the next days until the new set of pitchers arrived.

These, however, had lids on them that did not flip open, they unscrewed somehow and nobody, but nobody could open them unless that was the only thing they were doing at the time because of the concentration level necessary to open the lid and pour the water. Even at that, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of water soaking our carpet.

Needless to say, the judge was becoming very irritated by something that shouldn’t have been difficult to resolve. As our staff discussed the matter of saving our jobs and a plausible solution to the problem, we set about visiting other courtrooms in the building to see what water pitchers were being used. Glory be, we found a set of the old standbys in our previous quarters in the jury room, obviously neglected and to be relegated to the water pitcher pitch pile. We grabbed them and safely installed them as fixtures of our courtroom. What a relief! Problem solved, even though the outdated water pitchers weren’t quite as pretty. To tell you the truth, we missed the comic diversion the other pitchers had caused, but then again, the judge was much happier.

•••

Paying support in domestic cases, whether it be maintenance or child support, always seems to be a sticking point. In Wichita, we had what we called “Father’s Day” every Friday afternoon. The docket was composed entirely of cases involving de – linquent child support or other contempt matters. The judge always chose a particularly bad case to call up first, one where jail time was a distinct possibility. Once a case of that nature was completed with the respondent on the way to jail, it was amazing how many of the others waiting would approach the district attorney to settle their cases.

One day we had a man in on a contempt for nonpayment of child support who had been eating his Wheaties. He was representing himself and kept telling the judge that he simply couldn’t pay his support obligation because he had all of his other bills and his truck payment to pay. When the judge took no pity upon him and sentenced him to 60 days, he flew into a rage.

Now, all judges have what we call “panic buttons” close to them on the bench where they can call silently for sheriffs and other officers to assist if things get out of hand. As this very large man began to scream and throw things around in the courtroom, the judge hit his panic button. The judge was calmly advising the man that he should take a seat in the jury box and the sheriff would be in shortly to escort him to jail. All the while, the judge was pushing the button over and over again.

I turned to him and asked if I should see what was taking so long. He replied in the affirmative and I got up from my chair to leave the courtroom. As I did, the sleeve of my blouse caught on the sheet metal basket where the court files were kept for the day’s hearings. The sleeve ripped all the way to the wrist!

I ran to our chambers to see what the delay was and couldn’t find anyone anywhere.

When I returned to the courtroom, a lawyer about half the size of the respondent had the large man up against the wall in the courtroom saying, “You’re not helping yourself, son. This isn’t going to help your case. Just calm down and see what happens.” About that time, the sheriffs finally arrived and took the man into custody.

Now, my fiancé was a judicial services officer (deputy sheriff) at that time and the information that reached him was there had been an incident in my courtroom and my blouse had been torn off in the scuffle. Well, you can imagine how that made for an unhappy handling of the respondent when he arrived in the jail. He never did cooperate but, eventually, paid the amount of bond which would catch up his child support and we didn’t see him again <;-> at least on our domestic watch. As for the attorney that saved the day, he was somewhat of a hero for the rest of the afternoon.

•••

Wichita didn’t have the exclusive on problems in domestic courtrooms. In our first tour of duty in family court in Denver, we had a gentleman in for contempt for nonpayment of support. Now, in Denver, many of the courtrooms are equipped with large, heavy wood tables that have glass on top to protect the wood (from spills mostly from water pitchers). In any event, the judge told this respondent that he would have to pay a certain amount of support, regardless of his employment situation as it then existed. A recess was called and the judge left the courtroom with the clerk.

The respondent rose slowly to his feet, made a fist, and slammed it down on the glass table top yelling, “I’m not going to pay it!” He hit the table so hard that the glass shattered. The act itself seemed to calm the respondent. The sheriff was called and the respondent was ticketed for destruction of court property, to add to his other humiliation. Hard to believe he did not break his hand. The table itself was not damaged, but replacing the glass set the respondent back a hundred bucks!

•••

Some domestic cases are just downright uncomfortable for everyone involved. There was a case assigned to us in Denver that involved a couple who were divorcing. The reason for their incompatibility was the wife’s sister, who was planning to marry the husband as soon as the divorce was final. Well, you can imagine the line of witnesses who testified about the terrible wrong this man was doing to the family. Most of the scorn was not heaped upon the sister until later in the hearing. The kicker was that there were three sisters in the family and all of them were models. All of their friends who testified were models, too. Rest assured, we had never seen so much eyeliner and hairspray in our courtroom ever before! You can probably guess that the whole affair dissolved into a cat fight in the hall. We were glad we weren’t joining that family for Thanksgiving dinner.

•••

Another not-so-pretty sight was the case where two attorneys were calling it quits from their ten-year marriage. The husband was completely out of money so decided to represent himself. The wife had parents who were so glad their daughter was getting rid of that good-for-nothing that they paid for her lawyer. Of course, the financial situation of these two was the worst, absolute worst we had ever seen. It wasn’t a matter of who would get the assets; it was a matter of who would get stuck with the most debt.

A lawyer representing himself in a case in which he is so emotionally involved is a big mistake. Even worse, this case had so many documents to establish the couple’s bills that the case went on and on and on. You know, there were times when the aforementioned water pitchers really would have come in handy!

Finally, it was over. The name calling ceased — at least between the husband and his father-in-law. The debt got divided mostly down the middle and the wife got to keep the dog.

Judge thought about removing the dog from both of them, they were such maladjusted people, but acquiesced and let the wife have it. Poor Bowser!

•••

Then there was the case of the surgeon and the homemaker-turned-real-estatemogul and their very contentious divorce. Besides wrangling over the money and the property in Denver and Aspen were the accusations that each was an unfit parent. The tension became almost unbearable and we were more than happy to recess for the day. The wife retired to the fourth floor restroom and promptly went into an epileptic seizure. Is there a doctor in the house? Sure is. The husband ran into the restroom to help his soon-to-be-ex-wife. We were grateful he was there.

•••

The wealthy get down and dirty in their divorce cases like anybody else, but there are some unusual twists. One of the premiere real estate developers in Denver landed in our court back in the early 1990s for a very messy divorce. Many, many years later, an article in the newspaper stated the malpractice case was finally settled that the wife had brought against her attorneys. The result of the matter was almost what had been outlined when the petition was filed, before all the millions of dollars in attorney fees and contempt hearings and related matters.

The wrinkle here was the doll house. Evidently, there was a piece of property involved in the dispute that was a condominium. No one lived in the condo, but the husband was a collector of dolls. The dolls lived in the condo, and their happy home simply could not be disturbed, could it? Strange, but after the husband bought an island off the coast of Ireland to retreat to and began sneaking in and out of the country disguised in women’s clothes, the dolls were all but lost in the shuffle.

•••

The Tissue Case has to be the strangest domestic matter on our last rotation. This was the case of an unwed mother who was sued by her parents for custody of her mixed-race child. The parents were staunch conservatives who disapproved of the relationships their daughter had with “men of color.” Eventually, the daughter became pregnant and had a baby. The daughter was the quintessential spoiled brat. She had been given every luxury and advantage while growing up in her parents’ home. Her parents, on the other hand, had been quite closed-minded when it came to people outside of their own race and circumstances.

The attorney who took on the mother’s case knew that his client had no money to pay him but did see dollar signs for payment of his fee by the grandparents. The case was another one of those that went on and on with much mud slinging and barbs thrown in abundance. It truly was tragic.

Now, the mother cried through most of the hearing. This was not just a cry, but a dramatic cry! She always had to have a tissue at her disposal. It was reminiscent of Red Skelton and his handkerchief incessantly flailing about. You must understand that the staff was responsible to supply tissues if they wanted to have them around in the courtroom. When we began our year in this particular division, we purchased the largest multipack of tissues we could find, expecting it to last the whole year. Well, this mother was going to see to it single-handedly that that never happened!

Every time this case came up for hearing, the mother would promptly swipe the tissue box from the witness stand. The case itself was extremely sad, just from the circumstances, but this mother and her need for tissues to secure dramatic affect was hysterical. We tried everything to save our tissues from this woman. We put the tissues down out of sight on the witness stand so they wouldn’t be spotted the moment she hit the door. We substituted really cheap, rough tissues. She just used more! One day, we even put them on the file cabinet just outside the door into chambers. Well, that went over like a lead balloon and became the subject of a protracted colloquy between Court and Counsel. Soon, we gave up altogether and watched tissue after tissue after tissue after tissue disappear. Where did those water pitchers go?

•••

In Wichita we had default days in domestic court, usually Monday and Friday mornings, where those with uncontested matters were encouraged to come and not have to wait very long to have their cases heard. Usually one party would testify to verify the facts necessary to grant the divorce. The hearing would end when the Court issued its orders. These were short hearings, probably lasting five to seven minutes, and sometimes there would be only a few. There were days, however, when we would have fifteen to twenty. Our all-time record was twenty-three in one day.

I once told Judge Foulston, who was my judge at that time, that there was a part of his standard order where my mind would simply click off and it was a struggle for me to write down on my machine the rest of what he was saying. Of course, he was always saying the same thing at that point, but I would tell him I might write “on and on” and know what it was. Somehow that worked into a race where I would not only try to actually write what he was saying, but I would try to beat him to the end. He would talk as fast as he could and I would write as fast as I could, and we would try to end at the same time. If he really wanted to get my goat, he would alter his standard order by a word or two, which really was irritating because it caused a break in my racing concentration. My Type A reporting mind and personality would not let me write something like that incorrectly. To this day, his words jump into my head out of the blue:

The parties shall be prohibited from remarriage until 30 days from the date of the entry of the decree or 30 days from the receipt of the mandate from the appellate court.

•••

Domestic cases, family court, involve the most raw form of emotion. While it is true that court reporters see people when they are in their most difficult circumstances, cases with children are the hardest. We develop these defense mechanisms to deal with domestic cases not out of a sense of harshness or uncaring, but because, otherwise, we might care too much.

The challenges of court reporting

What passes itself off as the norm of acceptability in verbatim reporting and transcription from some of today’s court reporters causes shudders among even the most sanguine of seasoned professionals. According to those skilled in the art, the problem is the sheer lack of education and theory exploitation, something neophytes are blithely unaware of. Widely unheard of in today’s group of young reporters is basic English knowledge, alas even the most elementary rules of punctuation.

What is shockingly troubling is that attorneys and judges are now viewing these work products as de facto acceptable. Something that would simply be unheard of as acceptable 10 years ago is today blessed by management as worthy of praise and recognition. Just yesterday a group of attorneys were overheard characterizing a certain reporter’s realtime as if trying to read braille! What is even more alarming is the reporter in question is realtime certified with years and years of so-called experience. What happened here?

Perhaps with the tsunami of instant information, no one is paying attention to detail, something sorely absent in the transcripts of the younger generation. This blasé work ethic and attitude perpetuates itself in courtroom decorum as well where counsel are, in some instances, barely civil even to the court! Nearly gone are the days of respectful politeness and patiently waiting for one’s turn to present an argument coherently to the court. Rather it is more akin to a verbal free-for-all of the strong willed, the record be damned.

How many times has it happened that no one could understand what anyone was saying when someone asks the reporter to read back what the witness was yammering over objections and banter back and forth?

From this delirium of decorum the professional reporter is expected to create a lucid record. It is speciously assumed we possess mythical powers with a wand instead of a modern shorthand machine. We, the silent reporters, are expected to possess an all-seeing, all-knowing fluency of English, Spanish, French, Italian, Creole, German, Russian, and Mandarin, to say nothing of the obtuse technical, scientific, and medical terminology.

Such unrealistic expectations, coupled with a complete lack of understanding of the art of a skilled, top-notch verbatim reporter, is harmful to our profession. Lowering expectations results in a diminishment of our importance in the judicial process, especially in light of the panoply of incompetence being turned out of schools today as “court reporters.”

The real culprit here is education — or the lack thereof — in law schools, colleges, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. Somewhere along the line, education of would-be future attorneys regarding the record and the court reporter’s role has been abandoned as unimportant in the process. It is up to us to educate and reemphasize the importance of clarity and accuracy in the preparation of appellate records and attention to detail.

Starting today, strive in a polite way to guide young attorneys by stressing clear speech and proper courtroom decorum, respect, and politeness in the legal drama. Failure to uplift and reform the untrained and unknowing will result in a continued deterioration of the reporting process as we know it today and bring us ever closer to extinction. It is imperative, therefore, that each of us pays attention to detail and demonstrates the highest level of professionalism we are capable of.

It is time to turn the tide and reassert our rightful importance in the judicial process. Please join today your fellow reporters with a renewed effort to improve the record and reporting standards. Do not wait until the eleventh hour.

Courts in Berks County, Pa., have no plans to replace stenographers

The September 20 Reading (Pa.) Eagle reported that, even in tough economic times, the Berks County courthouse support their court reporters. President Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl stated that digital devices are no comparison to stenographers when it comes to capturing an accurate record.

Source: http://www.readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=415176

CCRA President Early Langley defends official court reporters

In September, Early Langley, RMR, highlighted the importance of stenographic court reporters to the court system in an article  published  by the September 29 Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal. Langley pointed  out how recent cuts to official court reporter positions in California have essentially created a two-tiered justice system that separates those who can afford to bring in a highly-skilled stenographer from those who cannot.  Since  a transcript is needed for an appeal, litigants must either pay  to transcribe  the digital recording or pay to bring in a stenographic  court reporter. She asserted, “The integrity of the judicial process is at stake here with the average person no longer having access to equal justice.”

Source: http://www.marinij.com/tablehome/ci_21661409/budget-cuts-eliminate-manycourt-stenographersv

Drastic reductions proposed at Contra Costa County Courts

According to an August 21, 2012, article by Malaika Fraley of Contra Costa Times, Contra Costa County Superior Court is proposing to end a wide range of services. The article states that California has mandated the Contra Costa court cut its budget by $7 million in the current fiscal year. It also states that the court is considering eliminating its elder, homeless, and drug courts.

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/ news/ci_21367010/drastic-service-reductions-proposed-at-contra-costa-county