On Dec. 31, Judge Chris Day, of the 2nd Judicial District Court, in Cherokee County, Texas, sent a formal request to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton inquiring about the possibility of implementing a court recording system in face of “an increased shortage of court reporters.” In 2014, there were about 32,000 court reporters in the U.S., as per this 2014 industry outlook report, and Texas had the second-biggest shortage in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the country has half that many court reporters today, which might just be a golden opportunity for anyone looking for a new job.
“I became involved in court reporting when my mother suggested I attend her school back in 1985,” says Catherine Vecchio Williams, president of Arlington Court Reporting, Inc., an organization associated with DFW’s sole dedicated court reporting school at the Arlington Career Institute. “At one point her school housed 400 students, but because of the high skill level required to become a court reporter and the parameters placed on certification by the Texas Court Reporters Certification Board, graduation rates waned at 7-10%."
Becoming a court reporter only requires one to have a high school diploma or equivalent, and pass a state certification exam as well as a state and federal background check. That, on top of court reporting school will set one back around $25,000, stenograph included.
That might be a deal-breaker for some already, and Williams says she’s seen many students fail their certification tests on their third or fourth try: “The program dwindled but in the last three years there has been a change in enrollment, a new spark in the profession, and the word is getting out that the legal profession needs court reporters, [badly].”
And the shortage has one major side effect that may have been overlooked: Court reporters make bank. In 2014, a six-figure court reporter job opened up in San Francisco, and while that’s still on the high end, median wages were approaching $60,000 a year in 2018.
“Court recording machines are not the answer. They have been tried and they are very difficult to transcribe with accuracy.” — Catherine Vecchio Williams
But what about court recorders?
Isn’t the issue as simple as putting microphones on judges, prosecutors and plaintiffs?
Well, not likely.
Not only would the cost of implementing a recording system, as well as hiring human technicians to maintain and operate it, likely reach as high as $400,000 after also factoring in storage and archiving costs, but court recorders are far less accurate.
“Court recording machines are not the answer,” says Williams, who has more than 30 years of experience as a court reporter. “They have been tried and they are very difficult to transcribe with accuracy. They are OK for maybe municipal court but I personally have transcribed several audios from court recorders and they are always extremely difficult and time-consuming.”
Anyone who has ever struggled to understand a teacher with a thick accent or a police officer with a particularly distinct regional dialect can probably understand why simply recording someone’s voice might not be adequate for creating an accurate transcription.
The Marshall Project recently reported on a study done in Philadelphia courts where 27 stenographers were unable to accurately transcribe audio recordings of people speaking “African American English” 40% of the time and were also unable to accurately paraphrase sentences two out of three times. Court decisions in appellate courts require accurate transcripts. Considering that 11% of the transcripts produced by stenographers in the study were deemed “gibberish," court recorders might not be an ideal solution.
Williams says a better alternative to the traditional stenograph-carrying court reporter is the stenomask-wearing digital court reporter. Also known as voice writing, the technology involves repeating every word spoken during a trial into a mask as well as physiological quirk of the brain. And probably because the process is somewhat innate, going to school to learn voice writing will take nearly a third of the time it takes to learn your way around a traditional stenograph, at least theoretically. And future state legislation, including Senate Bill 2094 could make it possibly for student court reporters to work as they train.
“The Court Reporters Certification Board recently announced it will be implementing an unprecedented apprenticeship program to deal with the court reporting shortage,” Williams says. “This should be in place by March 2020 and will allow court reporting students waiting to pass the Texas certification exam to work as a court reporter under the mentorship of a working/certified court reporter. This should help in alleviating the shortage as well as the new digital writers coming into the field.”
So if you’re sick of your job or just ready for a career change, you should really think about becoming a court reporter. Because without court reporters to produce an accurate record of court proceedings, then chaos, injustice and most gruesome court delays are likely to be the inevitable outcome.
Considering how litigious things in Dallas tend to get, you are likely to never run short of work, and you’ll get a cool mask.