Digital recordings vs. stenographers in court raises concerns
Thanks to technology, the days of a stenographer typing court proceedings as they occur are almost over.
But some attorneys are worried that the elimination of the court stenographer, or court reporter, could have unintended consequences.
The Administrative Office of the Utah State Courts eliminated all 18 court reporters in 2009 budget cuts that saved the state $1.35 million, according to a report.
Court stenographers were used in most first-degree felony cases and in every hearing of capital murder cases. But in 2009, the state began using an audio and video recording system for court hearings, making court stenographers redundant.
Todd Utzinger, Davis County legal defender coordinator, said his main concern since the positions disappeared is, “there is no one to monitor the discussion in the courtroom.”
Court reporters would let attorneys know when they were talking over one another, Utzinger said, and would let witnesses know if they were answering a question before the attorney finished asking it.
The reason for stopping attorneys from talking over each other is so transcripts of the court hearings would be understandable to those who transcribed them, Utzinger said.
With audio and video recording, that can be hard to decipher.
So the audio recordings are clear, court clerks and judges have been trained to stop attorneys from talking over each other and to stop witnesses from answering questions before the attorney is finished speaking, said Lisa Collins, transcript manager and clerk of the court for the Utah Court of Appeals.
Audio recordings are backed up each day. “We’ve heard nothing but good about the system,” she said.
There have been a few glitches with the audio recordings, Collins said, but nothing serious.
However, Collins and Utzinger agree that transcripts sometimes come back with sections “deemed inaudible.”
“A computer-generated transcript is not as good as a live person,” Utzinger said.
Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said he is concerned that the courts may be relying too much on technology to preserve records.
He has not encountered a case in which a transcript was not available because the audio and/or video recording was not working, he said, but added, “What if something breaks down somewhere?”
Smith said he is also concerned that discs are no longer available for attorneys to review at the end of each day during a weeklong trial.
“We used to have that, and we were able to review it in order to assist us with a future witness or with closing arguments.”
Collins said that service is still available, but attorneys need to request it from the court clerk.
Renee Stacy works as a freelance court reporter. The Layton resident is a partner with the DepomaxMerit Litigation Services in Salt Lake City and is also the president of the Utah Court Reporter Association.
Stacy said a good recording of a court hearing is not going to be digital.
The only time a court reporter is brought into a courtroom now is when an attorney requests one and pays for the service.
Court reporters now transcribe audio recordings of hearings, but problems crop up, she said.
Someone may not be speaking into the microphone or may have walked away from the microphone, or the recording itself could be garbled, Stacy said.
The state will have to continue spending money to upgrade the system, she said, and the system will continue to have issues.
“I’m hoping that someday Utah will get court reporters back into the system.”
Meanwhile, other states are looking at Utah’s system and working toward audio and video recordings of their court hearings, Collins said.
Court reporters are also certified as transcribers, she said, and many are now independent contractors with the state.
When attorneys want printed documents of a court hearing, they make the request online. The request comes to Collins’ office, and she or someone else assigns the request to a transcriber.
The attorney is responsible for paying the fee for the documents directly to the transcriber.
In the past, requests went through each court, and one of the 50 court clerks across the state collected the fees. The process has been streamlined so the court clerks are no longer involved, Collins said.
It generally takes about 30 days for a transcript to be prepared. Once completed, a hard copy is delivered to the attorney, as well as to the court.
Collins said the transcript is also uploaded into the court computer system so the judge has instant access to it.