Idaho's need for court reporters, explained


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BOISE, Idaho (AP) Dianne E. Tucker Cromwell didn't want to be a court reporter. Her father, mother and sister did the job before her, and back then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was intense work that required reporters to spend hours in a room by themselves after court, reading their shorthand notes into a tape recorder to create an audio file of the proceedings.

But it was also her family's work in 1973, her parents founded Tucker & Associates in Boise, a court reporting firm still in business today. She wanted to be a teacher, but instead she went to court reporting school and began working in 1971.

For the first 10 years until computers revolutionized court reporting in the early 1980s she hated the job.

These days, though, after 47 years in the field, she'd recommend a career in it, the Idaho Press reports.

Her recommendation comes at a time when Idaho's lack of court reporters has reached a critical point. Last month, Sara Thomas, the state court administrative director, told the state's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that in parts of the state, court reporter positions are going unfilled for months, or even years.

Since 1890, Idaho law has required a court reporter for every district in the state, Eric Wildman, administrative district judge for the Twin Falls-based 5th Judicial District, told lawmakers in another committee hearing Tuesday. That's because Idaho's district courts are courts of public record meaning officials are required to maintain a verbatim transcript of court proceedings, Wildman said. Those transcripts offer a valuable record to the public, and judges in higher courts also review them if defendants appeal their cases.

But, Wildman went on, Idaho has 13 court reporters expected to retire in the next five years, and another 15 in the five years after that. That would compound a problem courts are already dealing with. There are vacancies throughout the state, and sometimes court reporters have to travel long distances to a hearing or trial. Since they often can't hold court without a reporter, judges must juggle schedules and move hearing dates. And that can, in a worst-case scenario, jeopardize a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

In addition to that, the number of defendants in Idaho's justice system is growing. In her address to lawmakers in January, Thomas said felony case filings jumped from 2,600 in 2014 to 3,500 in 2017. Thomas said prosecutors in Ada County, at least, expect those numbers to increase again in 2019.

Tucker Cromwell has noticed a shortage of court reporters in Idaho for the last five years, she said. After she retired as a court reporter, she took over her family's firm one of three in Boise that contracts with the courts to help fill those needed positions. The firm's reporters stay busy with the heavy caseload, she said.

The problem with hiring and retaining court reporters in government positions in Idaho, both Wildman and Tucker Cromwell say, is the pay. Tucker Cromwell said a court reporter in Idaho can expect a base pay of about $50,000 a year, based on the amount of money courts can offer.

"It stays at one level for years and years and years," Tucker Cromwell said.

That's different from other states, especially those with major cities, where officials compensate court reporters more handsomely. In Wyoming, for instance, base pay is between $70,000 and $80,000 a year, she said. In Los Angeles, it might fall between $92,000 and $130,000.

Wildman said when Idaho court officials have tried to recruit out-of-state court reporters, pay has been a major deal-breaker.

Because of that, Thomas, on behalf of the courts, requested a 10 percent budget increase for court reporters.


Reporters vs. Recorders

For about 30 years, Tucker Cromwell said, court officials across the country have flirted with the idea of eliminating court reporters altogether and using recording devices instead.

In Twin Falls, Wildman said, the court pays an out-of-state company to transcribe audio recordings of its proceedings, because it has a vacant court-reporter position. Right now, that service is about the same as a court reporter's salary, but the company has notified the court it will ask for more pay when the contract is renegotiated.

In some states, officials have actually cut the position, but many are having second thoughts, Tucker Cromwell said and pointed out there's no shortage of work for court reporters across the country.

"It's not as though they're happy they're hiring people back," she said.

The process of court reporting has become streamlined over the course of her career. The ease and effectiveness with which they work is another reason they're invaluable to the judicial process; Tucker Cromwell said a reporter must type 225 words per minute at 97 percent accuracy on a standard competency test to receive a license. That's after maintaining a high grade through court reporting school, which might take years. Of a class of 40 potential court reporters, only a few graduate and work in the field, she said; in terms of skill and craft, she likens it to being a concert pianist.

When she first began, during the years she despised doing the job her family did to pay the bills, she used her own personal shorthand to take notes on everything in court. All court reporters develop their own shorthand in school, she said; that's never changed. She then spent hours alone in a room with a tape recorder, speaking her notes aloud to create an audible record of that day in court. A typist then listened to that recording and produced a transcript in proper English.

"It was grueling sitting there by yourself for hours and hours just talking into a machine," she said.

When transcribing in court, she had to remain stoic and emotionless; there were times she was so set on producing the words she was hearing rather than listening to their meaning she had to ask someone how a case played out, even though she'd been there.

But it could get emotional, too. She transcribed notes from heavy cases, some of them involving rape or violent crime the types of cases in which verbatim records were most important to court officials and appeals. She remembered a time she had to take down testimony from the child of an 80-year-old who had been abused in a nursing home.

"I had a recess, and I had to run out of there and had to have a good cry about it," she said.

For her, the job wasn't fun until the early 1980s, with the advent of computers. They cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, but suddenly Tucker Cromwell had the ability to program her personal shorthand into the computer, which would remember specific keystrokes and translate them into full English words. It eliminated the hours she spent alone, dictating her notes.

"We were so excited," she remembered.

Today, it's even more efficient. As she types in court, her notes are sent out of state to another person who understands her shorthand and also receives an audio recording of the court proceedings. That person is able to clean up the transcript and send it back to her; it might take as little as a half-hour. She prepares a final version for court officials later on when necessary.

The process is thorough and reliable when compared to the litany of technical problems Wildman recited to lawmakers, created by recording devices.

When people speak over each other in court, for instance, it can be impossible to discern what is being said. It might be difficult to tell who is speaking or what they're saying, Wildman said, or the recording may pick up the shuffling of papers and whispers throughout the room, all of which could muddle important testimony.

"Problems with the recording don't often reveal themselves until it's too late to correct the record," he told lawmakers.

Court reporters, as human beings, can determine who is speaking, and their written record isn't marred by background noise. If someone is speaking too quickly or too quietly, a reporter can ask them to repeat themselves, slow down or speak up. Wildman's transcript wasn't so clean during the trial in which he used a recording device.

"Unfortunately, portions of the trial had to be retried, and I can assure you it's an unenviable position to be in to have to explain that to parties," he said.

In addition to that, judges often must review testimony throughout a trial or a proceeding. That's a relatively simple process if they have access to a transcript prepared by a court reporter. If they're using a recording instead, they must excuse the jury to move through the recording and find the moment in question, Wildman said.


Moving forward

The West is dotted with court reporting schools, Tucker Cromwell said, although in Thomas' report to JFAC, she noted the only school she knew of in the Northwest is in Washington. She said Idaho officials have reached out to a school in Washington and may develop a dual-credit program with the school.

Tucker Cromwell went to a physical one in San Francisco decades ago, but good programs are available online today, too, she said.

People have asked Tucker Cromwell in the past whether the process and the technology of court reporting will become obsolete. She doesn't think so.

"Nothing can match what we do," she said.


Information from: Idaho Press,

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