Crime & Courts

N.C. weighs necessity of court reporters; 'it’s all about the money'

The future of North Carolina’s court reporters will be back before the legislature this year following a new report that recommends digital recorders be placed in all courtrooms.

The machines already are in place for most district court proceedings. But the state’s Administrative Office of Courts said in its report this month that the devices should be installed and used more often in Superior Court, where more serious civil and criminal trials take place.

The General Assembly ordered the study last year. That followed a budget move by the state Senate to cut North Carolina’s staff of some 100 court reporters by half, then using the estimated $2 million savings to hire private reporters as needed and to install digital recording systems in courtrooms.

The AOC runs the court system. Its director, John Smith, said Friday that his agency is not recommending the elimination of live court reporters. Instead, the former judge called for a “gradual transition to an appropriate mix” – live reporters for more complex cases; digital recordings in routine and administrative matters.

Even so, the reaction of several lawyers and judges to any cuts in the use of court reporters was highly critical.

Recorders have proven to be less reliable, they say, and their hidden costs of time and money eat away at the supposed savings.

“This is a horrible idea,” said Charlotte attorney John Gresham. “Who in the AOC has recently spent a vacation in Colorado and sampled the new crop?”

Mecklenburg senior Superior Judge Richard Boner said the move appears driven by a legislature that wants to shrink the cost of courts. Smith acknowledges that the General Assembly wants “efficiencies.”

“If they want to turn the courtroom into a factory, they can do that,” Boner said Friday. “But I don’t consider that justice. Can you really put a dollar amount on justice?”

The AOC promises further studies to decide where court reporters are still needed while assessing the true costs of installing state-of-the-art recording equipment in every courtroom in the state.

Smith said any change will take time and money. The reliability issues plaguing the recording system in district courts “renders it inappropriate” for more serious cases, he wrote. “Without substantial investment in improving the digital record, live court reporters ... produce a more reliable record.”

Cathy Fletcher, who oversees Mecklenburg’s staff of seven court reporters, questions the logic of expanding a system that the study says doesn’t really work.

“It’s all about the money,” she said. “The whole report sort of shocked me. It doesn’t really have the people in it who actually use the court system.”

State Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Mount Airy attorney and the newly appointed chair of the N.C. Courts Commission, expressed views similar to Smith’s: Machines should not replace humans in court when “serious cases” are involved.

“I need to see a good reason for having the human element replaced,” she said.

Recorders must be monitored at all times, she said. Court reporters interrupt trials to tell lawyers not to talk over each other or remind witnesses to speak up or ask judges to repeat something if they didn’t hear it the first time.

“They ask for details,” she said. “They get it right.”

Reliability concerns

Christine Elminowski, a Mecklenburg court reporter for six years, said her first reaction to the AOC report was fear that she may be losing her job.

The legislature already cut in half what she is reimbursed for transcribing court records, which she says cost her $5,000 a year.

“My feeling is that they are trying to save money at any expense. My feeling is that this will affect court efficiency,” she said. “And if somebody can bring in a court reporter at their own expense, they will get a better trial and a better chance at appeal.”

The courtroom battle of human vs. machine has flared up across the country as the recession and calls for smaller government have led to closer financial scrutiny at all levels of state spending.

Advocacy groups who support court reporters say some states who made the switch are switching back because of reliability issues and unexpected costs. In Kentucky, which went to video recording of trials 30 years ago after a stenographers’ strike, a judge had to rehear an entire murder trial in 2010 after the digital recorder broke down.

On the other hand, Utah went digital in 2009 and reportedly saved $1.3 million by cutting 50 jobs. It also cut the average number of days of receiving a trial transcript from 138 to 12.

Last summer, a senior U.S. District Court judge in Nebraska called for digital recorders to be installed in all federal courtrooms nationwide. Judge Richard Kopf says the machines are at least as reliable as court reporters, cost less and allow easier access to trial records.

“The whole world can listen to a trial I conduct in Nebraska for a very small cost,” Kopf wrote last July. “If I screw up, then the whole world can know it. And, that is a VERY good thing.”

Decisions on what system North Carolina will use and what it should cost remain to be made. According to the AOC study, which was done by the staff of the National Center for State Courts, the average state-employed court reporter earns $53,000 in salary and $1.25 for every page of a court record transcribed.

When New Jersey moved to digital recorders in Superior Court in 2012, the estimated cost per courtroom was $15,000 to $18,000.

Here, the AOC-sponsored report says a move toward recording devices can offset what it describes as a growing shortage of court reporters nationwide. Technology also can provide quicker and more versatile access to a transcript, it concludes.

Most important, the report says, is the promise of lower costs. Recorders may save money by “requiring fewer or less highly compensated staff.”

Yet Charlotte attorneys like Gresham and John Wester and judges like Boner and Lisa Bell say the issue must be the quality of the court record, not its price.

“Sorting out what the witnesses, the lawyers and the judge is saying is central to the integrity of the trial process. If we move to ... digital recorders, we must know there is no compromise,” Wester said.

Bell, who had firsthand experience with court recordings while a district judge, says the criticism of their reliability is warranted.

“I would imagine that what’s driving this is that they are cheaper,” she said. “But I don’t know if that takes into account ... how many cases will have to be retried if there’s a malfunction and how significantly individual rights might be impacted.”

Smith acknowledges challenges but says the country is trending toward more technology in the courtroom.

The General Assembly reconvenes in May. Any moves by its members to cut court costs must be balanced with the need for an accurate court record, Smith said.

Unless the decisions are backed by thought, plans and money, he warned, they have “the potential for catastrophic consequences to the courts.” Researcher Maria David and Jeff Willhelm contributed.