Opinion: The importance of court reporters

Guest column by Madelyn Schmidt

As the world has recently undergone dramatic technological advancements, societies of developed countries have stood by, amazed at the disappearance of jobs they formerly considered irreplaceable. Unnervingly efficient mechanical substitutes have taken the place of scores of factory workers, customer support representatives, and even grocery store cashiers. With a technological tsunami sweeping thousands out to unemployment, questions are constantly arising as to whether any task presently dependent on humanity will not encounter the same fate.

Court reporting, the method of taking a verbatim legal record using a shorthand stenotype machine, is one such career on which doom was pronounced as early as the 1970s. The long-time presence of the reporter in the courtroom is often overlooked as it is a job that involves minimal vocalization compared to other officers of the court. However, if a proceeding is appealed, the court reporter suddenly becomes a central figure. His or her record is reviewed by a higher court to either enforce or reverse the judgement; the difference in a single word can change the entire outcome of a trial. This is why an accurate and complete record of proceedings is essential to our justice system.

It is obvious that the shorthand skills of a court reporter were necessary back in the days preceding the tape recorder, but what role do they play in today’s highly technological society of artificial intelligence and voice recognition software? The simple answer is that the complexity of the court reporter’s duties and responsibilities still require the adaptive capabilities of a human mind. Some such complexities include recording the spoken word rather than background noises, stopping the attorneys when they speak over each other, understanding the foreign pronunciation of a witness with an accent, asking and discerning when a statement is on or off the record, and the ability to read back testimony immediately upon request.

Proponents of the implementation of voice recognition software in the courtrooms argue that court reporters are outdated and not cost effective. According to the Bureau of Labor, the average annual salary for a court reporter was $55,120 in 2017. The one-time installment of digital recording software is significantly lower, approximately $35,000. This does not include, however, the annual salary that must be paid to an individual to operate the recording systems, which commonly transcribe testimony inaccurately, pick up private conversations between counsel and their clients, or simply stop recording.

A February 2019 article in The Marshall Project, a criminal justice journalism organization, reinforces the idea that audio recordings are unreliable. There have been instances in which portions of a trial are lost forever due to muffled or inaudible speech. Many times attorneys speak over each other, creating a tangle of words difficult to decipher. In these situations a court reporter has the ability to intervene and protect the record.

The Georgia Court Reporters Association also cites several instances in which nine states that had transitioned to some extent to voice recording found the quality and usefulness of these records unacceptable. As a result, most of the unsatisfied courts have returned to employing a human court reporter for maximum assurance of a quality transcript.

Although the existence or nonexistence of court reporters may seem like an unimportant matter to most, the truth is that the disappearance of court reporters would mark a degradation in the quality of our justice system that would affect not only judges and attorneys but also the clients and cases they represent. Technology has undeniably improved the lives of Americans, and it has been a useful tool for court reporters in creating their record. We must be cautious, however, in the status we give to technology, especially in matters as sensitive as legal issues. Technology should certainly aid court reporters, but in this setting, its capabilities can never overreach those of the human mind.

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