Court reporters may be replaced

BY ZHI XIONG | MAY 13, 2009 7:30 AM

In the courtroom, few can stop state public defender Tyler Johnston when he starts talking too fast.

One exception is the court reporter who is transcribing his every word for the record.

Now, Johnston is part of a committee researching whether Iowa’s official court reporters can be replaced by electronic recorders.

The Iowa Judicial Branch Operating Budget could constrict by $15.4 million for fiscal 2010. The state’s 185 official court reporters — most of whom are women — may eventually join the list of money-saving solutions. In 2006, court reporters typically earned between $41,700 and $45,000 annually, according to recent government statistics.

“We have a duty to taxpayers to operate the courts as effectively, efficiently, and affordably as possible,” said Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, the chairwoman of the Judicial Council, which appointed the committee May 7.

The review panel will assess costs associated with a digital audio system. If approved, Iowa courts could join Alaska’s in going completely electronic.

Currently, Iowa’s lower courts use electronic reporters only in routine cases, such as traffic violations. Traditional stenographers, who type letters representing sounds, words, or phrases and translate them into written text, are still preferred in felony trials, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The reporter’s role — while understated — is arguably vital and woven into court tradition.

“If you look at a judge as the CEO of a courtroom, the court reporter would be the vice president,” said Kristina Sickels, a director of the Iowa Court Reporters Association.

Reporters assist judges and often travel with them. They are tested on spelling, medical and legal terminology, court procedures, and Iowa codes in addition to typing skills.

Iowa is known for its training program for court reporters, Sickels said. The American Institute of Business in Des Moines offers education for certification and holds testing sessions.

Out of 950 students enrolled at the school, roughly 90 follow a reporting-related track. Some earn an associate’s degree in transcription services, and a portion move on to bachelor’s degrees in court reporting or closed captioning.

“Our decision is to support the study, but we’re hopeful they’ll find it’s not a good idea,” said José de Jesús, a communications officer for the college.

Those currently enrolled may simply take their certification to other states, while prospective students may pursue the closed-caption degree instead. De Jesús said the programs are likely to lose students, but it is too soon to tell how much money it would cost the school.

De Jesús said he’s anticipating the panel’s report, due Jan. 1, 2010. The committee, which includes judges, lawyers, and one retired court reporter, will meet for the first time next week in Des Moines.
While Johnston said he would keep an open mind in considering the technology, he holds the court reporters in high regard.

“We grow up with that,” said Johnston, who works in Cedar Rapids. “You watch it on TV. So many people are conditioned to have them.”

Known for speaking too quickly, reporters ask Johnston to stop and repeat himself if he is not being clear — something a machine cannot do.

“If you’re changing the system from something that already works, it better be a really good [change],” Johnston said.

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