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