Court reporters produce official record of trials, plus closed- caption TV dialog

krodine@idahostatesman.comOctober 1, 2013 

  • WHAT IT TAKES

    To be a licensed court reporter in Idaho, a person must pass the Idaho Certified Shorthand Reporter test, which includes a 50-question, multiple-choice written knowledge test plus three skills tests with different speed requirements: 180 words per minute for Literary, 200 words per minute for Jury Charge, and 225 words per minute for Q&A, which measures speed taking down testimony. Applicants must pass all with at least 95 percent accuracy. Those speed and skills requirements are the same as for national certification as a Registered Professional Reporter, and national certification as a Registered Merit Reporter requires speeds of at least 260 words per minute for Q&A. Certification is also available as a real-time reporter.

Attend a trial in any Idaho district court, and you'll see a person seated below the judge, smoothly taking down the proceedings with keystrokes that seem too few to encompass the rapid-fire stream of testimony.

The proceedings also are being recorded digitally, but that's a backup.

"The official record is not the digital recording. It's the court reporter," Idaho Senior Judge Michael McLaughlin says. "It's critical."

It's also uncannily accurate and more reliable than a machine recording, says McLaughlin, who retired from the 4th District bench last year. He now serves as education director for the Idaho Supreme Court and an appellate judge for Boise-area magistrate courts.

"The reason for our job is so that someone else can review what happened, whether it's a deposition or a trial or whatever ... and so a high court some day can review it and know exactly what was said," says Lori Pulsifer of Boise, a court reporter for the past 26 years.

"That's pretty cool, that something I wrote down is someone's [key to the future], whether it's custody of their child or whether they get the death penalty or if they win a property line dispute," she says. "Every case is important to the parties involved."

HOW DO THEY DO IT?

The work is like mechanized shorthand, says Dianne Tucker Cromwell, a 42-year court reporting veteran whose mother, father and sister also embraced the profession.

"It's like typing, and you have all these memorized ways of writing what people are saying," she says. "Once you have it in your brain, you can generally get every word."

Steno keyboards have 22 keys, generally pressed in combination to produce words, syllables or phrases with one stroke.

Each court reporter can customize the system to shortcut commonly recurring phrases such as "for the record" or "state your name," Cromwell says.

"I tell people it's like having an alphabet on each hand," Pulsifer says. "Your vowels are controlled with your thumbs, and your consonants are controlled with your fingers. We write things how we hear them. From the ear to the fingers, it just has to go."

Pulsifer worked in courtrooms in Arizona and North Idaho before opening a small freelance firm, QnA Court Reporting, 11 years ago.

As a freelancer, she and her stenotype machine take down depositions for area attorneys, record public hearings for state agencies, transcribe grand jury recordings and sometimes offer CART (community access real-time translation) in court for defendants who can't hear or adequately understand what is being said.

Some court reporters are specialists, with expertise in medical or other technical information that often is heard in the courts. Another specialty is closed-captioning, which uses court reporter skills and equipment to place television dialog on-screen.

In Idaho's court system, each district judge - 42 now, with three new positions launching this fall - employs a court reporter to capture felony and civil proceedings. Magistrate courts, which handle misdemeanors, don't employ court reporters. Neither do the state's appellate courts.

"Trial court is the court of record, and those records go up on appeal," says Janica Bisharat, director of the Idaho Supreme Court's court management division.

"A judge and a court reporter have to work well together, and you have to give them breaks," Judge McLaughlin says, noting the intensity of focus required. "That's why a lot of judges, quite frankly, take a break about every 90 minutes - not only for the jury but for the court reporter."

Numerous Idaho companies provide freelance court reporters, from tiny QnA to M&M, which boasts 20 court reporters working out of its Boise headquarters and an additional five in Coeur d'Alene.

In the middle range is family-owned Tucker & Associates, which contracts with seven court reporters. Cromwell, who founded the firm in the early 1970s with her mother, Grace Tucker, stays involved with the company in addition to working full time for 4th District Judge Ron Wilper. Her sister, Susan Gambee, is the court reporter for 4th District Judge Deborah Bail. Her son and daughter manage the firm's production and scheduling.

PRECISE, FOCUSED, CALM

With accuracy and speed essential - to be certified in Idaho, they need to record testimony at 225 words per minute or more with at least 95 percent accuracy - court reporters come across as perfectionists, able to capture the words without being waylaid by the volatile content of those words.

"We sit underneath the witnesses, and sometimes it's very emotional," Cromwell says. "But we know, professionally, you can't get involved in the story. You just take the words down."

Pulsifer agrees, saying, "you just kind of have to check out and think of it as words."

Most judges want their court reporters to use "real time," which instantly translates what the reporter types into sentences displayed on laptop or iPad screens for the judge and attorneys.

That is an essential tool, says Judge McLaughlin, since it allows the legal participants to see as well as hear what's being said. And they can request a transcript at the end of the day to help analyze the information.

"In major litigation it's almost the norm to get 'dailies,' " he says.

Real-time display comes in particularly handy for jurists during a bench trial - when the judge, not a jury, determines the outcome, McLaughlin says.

"As the information came across my screen I could highlight it, and at the end of the day cut and paste that portion for my findings of fact," he says.

Real-time reporting is rewarding for the court reporters, too, says Cromwell.

"You get self-satisfaction when it gets translated perfectly and everyone can read instantly," she says.

After four decades as a court reporter, she says, "It's work, and it's stressful sometimes. But I feel so fortunate that I still love what I do. The talented attorneys, the judges - I just really respect the whole system. And I've really enjoyed learning about the law."

•••

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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