Special Report: A looming shortage of court reporters


Think of a courtroom, and several things might come to mind, like a judge, attorneys, jurors, a defendant.  What probably gets overlooked?  The court reporter.  That’s the person working on the strange-looking miniature keyboard, and playing a vital role in the proceedings.

“When people are in court some tend not to even notice the court reporter but they’re serving a really important purpose there,” said district court judge Colleen Weiland. 

Court reporters are charged with making note of every word exchanged in a court proceeding.  The transcripts they make are relied on by the judge throughout the hearing or trial, and they are used heavily whenever a party files an appeal. 

The court reporter practices stenography, the art of using a shorthand keyboard (steno machine) that allows them to keep up with the speed at which people talk – up to 200 words per minute.  It can’t be done with a regular keyboard, and learning to use a steno machine takes about two years in a program like the one at Anoka Technical College in the Twin Cities.

“It’s kind of similar to learning a foreign language,” says program director Jennifer Sati. 

The Anoka Tech program is growing, and Des Moines Area Community College is planning to have its program ready for students within about a year.  That’s a good thing, because there’s a shortage of court reporters that’s only expected to worsen.  Roughly 60% of Iowa’s court reporters will be retiring over the next decade, and with Anoka Tech the closest certified program teaching the replacements, there may be trouble filling those positions.

“They’re not ready to retire tomorrow but they’re within distance of it and if they all decide to go at the same time we are going to grind to a halt,” Weiland said, adding that in an extreme shortage, the courts would have to turn to automated means of keeping a record, which she does not prefer.

“There are lots of fails in the technology.  Even when it works well, court proceedings are such that you can’t always tell on an audio who’s saying something specific.  People talk over each other, people interrupt each other.”

Judges prefer a human court reporter because audio or video recordings don’t provide an immediate, readable transcript, often there are inaudible portions of the recording, and court reporters provide essential administrative help.  In Iowa, judges don’t have secretaries or assistants.

Combine that with the other options available to those trained in stenography, like real-time closed captioning in the broadcast industry, and it’s no wonder Sati can say, “Our graduates are getting jobs when they walk out the door because there’s such a demand for court reporters.”

Anoka Technical College:

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4th Nov 2013

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