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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Winter 2006

Court Reporters: The Keepers of the Record

BY ANITA WOMACK-WEIDNER

WHEN FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR Franklin H. Williams needed a court reporter in 1988 to record the first three public hearings of the commission investigating the under-representation of minorities and bias in the New York State court system, Sandra K. Scruggs, certified shorthand reporter, was hired.

Seventeen years later, Scruggs - now a Buffalo senior court reporter after passing a series of civil service exams - received the diversity award for recruiting minority court reporters from the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission on Minorities, which continues Williams' work. She has mentored a dozen people in over 15 years, including five who have followed in her footsteps.

Court reporters make verbatim records of speeches, conversations, legal proceedings, meetings and other events. Traditionally used in legal proceedings, increasingly court reporters also provide closed-captioning and realtime translating services to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

 
Sr. Court Reporter Sandra K. Scruggs
Sr. Court Reporter
Sandra K. Scruggs

PHOTO: TED ERMANSONS
 

 

There are two main methods of court reporting: stenotyping and voice-writing. Court reporters use a stenotype machine in all official proceedings. The machine allows them to press multiple keys at a time to record combinations of letters representing sounds, words or phrases. These symbols are then recorded on a computer disk or CDROM, then translated and displayed as text in a process called computeraided transcription (CAT). Accuracy is critical - an appeal may depend on the transcript.

Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is the instant translation of spoken word into English text using a stenotype machine, a laptop and realtime software. The text appears on a computer monitor or other display. In the courtroom, CART is typically used where a deaf or hearing-impaired individual does not use sign-language or there is no interpreter. Judges and lawyers also use CART for fast access to transcripts. Some of the newest machines are equipped with a function that synchronizes audio with the words being typed.

Machine shorthand was patented in 1879 and advanced by Ward Stone Ireland, who came up with a highspeed keyboard that is still used today, according to the September 2004 Journal for the Reporting and Captioning Professions." CAT came to the forefront in the 1970s and remains the standard for reporters. When Scruggs started in the court system, there were still a few court reporters who relied on manual shorthand.

"Oftentimes we're writing under very bad conditions," said Scruggs. People are shuffling their papers, moving around in their seats, mumbling. There are fire trucks outside. We try to listen through those fire trucks. We are the guardian of the record and being such it is our duty and obligation to make sure that we record testimonies accurately."

The voice-writing method involves speaking into a hand-held stenomask, which contains a microphone and voice silencer. The reporter repeats the testimony into the microphone, but the mask and silencer prevent the reporter from being heard.

In addition to time in the courtroom, court reporters spend hours at night or on weekends creating and editing transcripts. Court reporters are responsible for keeping up their skills, taking refresher courses and constantly updating their computer dictionary with new words and phrases.

Court reporters pay for all equipment and software themselves, even in their one-year probationary period (to be hired on a permanent basis, they must produce a partial transcript using computer-aided transcription equipment). A court reporter just starting out could easily spend $10,000 for a laptop and other equipment. The machine court reporters use, called the writer, costs a minimum of $4,000 new, as does the proprietary software, which cannot be shared. Some court reporters, like Scruggs, have two writers in case one breaks down. The only thing court-employed reporters are given is paper for their writers.

"I think court reporters invented multi-tasking because we're looking, listening, thinking, processing, and our hands are moving," said Scruggs. I might be listening to three people talking at one time. I heard what you said. I'm holding what he just said, writing what the man said before him and I'm thinking about the best way to get this down. And I'm asking them not to talk at once."

 
THEIR ESSENTIAL DUTIES
  • Create a verbatim record
  • Keep a list of witnesses
  • Mark exhibits for the record; keep exhibit list
  • Edit, proofread and provide transcripts as ordered
  • Prepare for the next day's cases (review docket sheet and pretrial orders; research subject-matter proper names and words; create shorthand/English matches; input names and other relevant terms into job dictionary)
  • Purchase and maintain state-of-the-art equipment

For a complete list, see the "Journal for the Reporting and Captioning Professions," September 2004 issue.

Winter 2006 PDF Format
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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov