Do courts still need court reporters?

July 11th, 2011

Texas is considering getting rid of them. The Statesman reports a number of cases where the inability to obtain a trial transcript has resulted in trials being rendered moot!

Yet the Conference of State Court Administrators recently released a report wondering why, in a digital age of inexpensive and increasingly sophisticated electronic recording equipment, the business of producing crucial court transcripts more resembled a system of medieval scribes. It concluded that the process most courts used to document the words spoken in them was inefficient, costly and, in some ways, completely baffling.

“It’s like saying your courtroom shall be cooled with an electric fan, or that your airplane shall use an internal combustion engine,” said Delany. “It’s frozen in time.”

Carl Reynolds, director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, which supports the state’s 2,700 courts, said, “It’s bizarre.”

And why? I smell rent seeking!

Though state law assumes county and district courts will use a live reporter instead of an electronic recorder, it is not legally required. Still, in Texas, all but a tiny handful of courts continue to prefer the 2,600 humans licensed by the state’s Court Reporters Certification Board who take notes on machines that use a system of symbols — gibberish to an outsider — that allow reporters to accurately reproduce language spoken at 200 words a minute.

But critics note that having a person physically present at every court hearing and trial to write down what is said just in case there is an appeal makes little sense. Fewer than 1 percent of the district and county court cases disposed of in Texas last year were appealed, according to the Office of Court Administration.

Such slim odds, they say, make hiring a person to listen in every time a judge and lawyers convene in a courtroom an unaffordable luxury.

Most hearings do not need court reporters. An audio recording, which later could be transcribed would be sufficient.

As the Legal Blog Watch notes, Utah has already replaced court reporters with an electronic recording system:

Some states like Utah have already switched over to a completely electronic recording system. A spokeswoman for the Utah state courts said there have been no problems created by the switch and the average time it takes to generate a transcript has plummeted from 138 days to about two weeks.

How does this work if the Judge wants a question repeated, or if someone needs the record to be read back in the middle of trial? Also, during a trial if someone says something inaudible, the court reporter can interrupt and ask for a repeat–you can’t do that with a recording.

But does it matter? Would the reduced cost, and the quicker turnaround time make up for these deficiencies?

H/T Legal Blog Watch