A court reporter may seem like an afterthought in the workings of a courtroom to someone who is not part of the legal system. They sit unobtrusively at the front of the courtroom and quietly type into their machines while things go on around them. To someone familiar with the legal process, though, the court reporter is just as much an essential part of the proceedings as the judge, attorneys, and witnesses. In fact, in most cases it is illegal to proceed in court without a court reporter present. The Court Reporter Statute designates which proceedings must be recorded in federal court, while civil proceedings and other courtroom proceedings are designated on a local level. While in some instances the judge is given the choice of court reporter or recording device, frequently a certified court reporter is mandated because of the importance of having an accurate transcript of the case.
In order to capture a verbatim record of everything that goes on during court, the court reporter receives special training in law, courtroom proceedings, legal terminology, and medical terminology, among other subjects, and also must become proficient at using a stenotype machine to record speech at a minimum of 225 words per minute. This record is then translated into a written transcript that becomes part of the official record of the case filed with the court clerk. The transcript may be referred to within the court for the duration of the case, and attorneys involved in the case may request copies to review proceedings, as well.
Transcripts become even more important if a case is appealed. The right to appeal is a central aspect of the United States justice system, and for that, an accurate record of previous court proceedings is necessary. Appellants may choose to include the transcript or a part of the transcript in their request for an appeal, and judges frequently use the transcript when making their decision whether or not to grant the appeal.
Presence in the Courtroom
It is not just the production of the transcript that makes court reporters such a valuable part of the legal proceedings. One of their purposes resides in the awareness created by their presence. Whenever a reporter is at a deposition or a court case, everyone becomes more conscious of the fact that every word spoken becomes official evidence that may be reviewed as needed.
In spite of their silent roles in the courtrooms of legal thrillers in movies, court reporters are professionals who generally must take an active role in depositions and in court. Court reporters control the accuracy of the record, and so they may speak up frequently in order to have someone repeat themselves if a word is missed, reminding witnesses to use verbal responses rather than gestures, and making sure only one attorney speaks at a time. They may also be asked to read back some of what has been recorded, or to note emphasis placed on a word or phrase.
The Cost of Technology
In some courtrooms, attempts have been made to replace court reporters with audio and video equipment in an effort to cut costs and trim budgets. Unfortunately, these have failed on several levels.
- When audio has been used, people in the courtroom have not always spoken loudly enough or clearly, there is frequently background noise or papers shuffling near microphones, and microphones malfunction or are not turned on, rendering much of the testimony inaudible.
- A written transcript of the proceedings must still be provided. Transcribing from audio uses much more time than a court reporter requires to transcribe stenotyped notes, produces a much less accurate outcome, and costs significantly more. Unfortunately, many courts have found that even when freelance transcriptionists are able to discern what has been said, the expense of paying the contracts has been more than the cost of retaining a full time court reporter.
- In addition to the inadequacy of audio systems to achieve satisfactory results, the initial expenses to put the systems in place are rarely within the perceived budgets, and upgrades drive costs up even further.
The Bottom Line
Rather than replacing court reporters, as many have predicted, technology’s best attempt has so far only been to inadvertently obstruct justice and to waste money rather than save it. Meanwhile, demand for professional court reporters is predicted to rise by around ten percent over the next decade. It appears that a court reporter’s place in the courtroom is nearly as secure and as vital to our justice system as that of the judges and the attorneys.