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Are Court Reporters 'Medieval Scribes' Headed for Extinction?

The Austin Statesman reported earlier this month on the state of court reporting in Texas, and it raises a question in my mind: is the position of court reporter long for this world? Would it be "unthinkable," for example, for the profession to disappear altogether by the year 2020?

For many, many years there was a clear need for a person to attend a trial in the role of scribe. This person was charged with recording exactly what was stated at trial to ensure that a transcript could be generated in the rare event of an appeal. But in the year 2011, must this role still be filled by a human? Couldn't some combination of 21st century audio and video equipment adequately and accurately capture what is said in court, for far less money and without many of the calamitous outcomes described in the Statesman article?

The Statesman observes that when a court reporter leaves the trial with her notes or stenographic records, those notes may be the only record of what occurred. If the court reporter then fails to produce a transcript for whatever reason, an appeal of the original trial may be impossible. In one case the reporter's notes were destroyed in a tornado. In other cases there have been unreasonable delays waiting for the reporter's work, or the transcript delivered has been riddled with errors.

In a case highlighted in the article, a court reporter's computer crashed, destroying her notes and leading to her being fined and having her license suspended. The court reporter had also worked in a separate proceeding where prosecutors wanted to file an appeal, but the court reporter could not create the needed transcript due to the suspension. For some reason, the Statesman reports, the reporter also refused to turn over her notes. When the parties predictably could not agree on the words that had been spoken at trial, the court finally just gave up and "determined that the entire reporter's record of the bench trial was lost or destroyed." The effect of this was to render the original trial result moot, as if it had never happened, and the parties had to start all over again.

Some states like Utah have already switched over to a completely electronic recording system. A spokeswoman for the Utah state courts said there have been no problems created by the switch and the average time it takes to generate a transcript has plummeted from 138 days to about two weeks. Now the Texas Conference of State Court Administrators has issued a report of its own questioning the state's reliance on human court reporters to create transcripts, calling the current system inefficient, costly and, in some ways, "completely baffling." According to the Statesman, the report "wonder[s] why, in a digital age of inexpensive and increasingly sophisticated electronic recording equipment, the business of producing crucial court transcripts more resembled a system of medieval scribes."

Posted by Bruce Carton on July 11, 2011 at 04:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)


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