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End of an era for court reporters

Towson courthouse reporters (L-R) Kathy Papesh, Barbara Ely, Nonna Baksa, Janet Brown, Randy Mackubin, Edward Mintzer, Rhonda Smith (In back) Pat Cirasole, Melissa Anderson, Tony Greaver.

The Baltimore County Circuit Court is quietly losing 237 years of courtroom experience. Its 14 court reporters learned last month the courthouse will convert entirely to digital recordings by the summer.

The move was not a surprise to the court reporters, just its suddenness.

“It hurt because of our relationships with the bench, the lawyers and each other,” said Edward Mintzer, who has worked 47 years as a court reporter, the last 13 in Towson. “This is family.”

Baltimore County is one of the exceptions to the rule when it comes to having court reporters, however. Montgomery County has been exclusively digital for almost a decade and was using reel-to-reel tape almost 30 years ago. And a profession losing jobs because of advances in technology is nothing new.

But the departure of familiar faces in Towson, the loss of court reporters anywhere, comes with a familiar concern voiced by judges, lawyers and court reporters themselves.

“The county is not getting the same record they would get with court reporters,” said Randy Mackubin, the county’s chief court reporter.

Mackubin has been a court reporter in Baltimore County since 1979. Asked when he thought he would be replaced by a machine, he laughed.

The county first installed CourtSmart, a digital recording system, in three courtrooms in the mid-1990s as part of courthouse renovations. In the last few years, all 16 existing courtrooms have been retrofitted for digital recording, and three recently opened courtrooms feature state-of-the-art technology.

“We knew it’s been coming,” Mackubin said.

Court reporters are county employees, and according to Administrative Judge John Grason Turnbull II and others, there had been a long-standing, if unwritten, agreement between the court and the county: the court reporters would be phased out by attrition only.

But new County Executive Kevin Kamenetz came into office vowing to make government more efficient and has already consolidated three county agencies and eliminated more than 140 vacant jobs. Ellen Kobler, a Baltimore County spokeswoman, said doing away with court reporters is part of the county’s effort to become more efficient and increase its use of technology.

Under the plan, four court reporters will remain in the courthouse but not in a courtroom; instead, they will monitor the CourtSmart system’s screens in a designated room.

The remaining court reporters will move to civilian jobs with the Baltimore County Police Department by May 1, retire effective June 30 or, in one case, leave county employment. Kobler said the reassignment will allow more officers to go back on the street. She declined to comment further about the personnel changes because details are still being worked out.

Turnbull, court administrator Timothy Sheridan and county administrator Fred Homan met with the court reporters in mid-March to deliver the news.

“It’s a cost-saving measure,” Turnbull said. “I’m not overly joyful with it either, but it’s a situation we didn’t have control over.”

Mackubin said he and his colleagues were in shock upon hearing the news.

“We’re all happy they have a plan for us,” he said. “We would’ve liked more time.”

David R. Dawson, a court reporter for 44 years and former president of the Maryland Court Reporters Association, said he was “distraught” to hear the news.

“It’s a sad thing,” said Dawson, who works in Worcester County Circuit Court. “It’s been really a disservice and compromises the record.”

Baltimore County court reporters used words such as “heartbroken,” “devastated” and “unconscionable.”

“We understand today’s economy,” said Melissa Anderson, a court reporter for 22 years, eight of them in Baltimore County. “This is going a step further and eliminating a profession.”

All of the court reporters emphasized that they were not angry or trying to point fingers. The inevitability of a switchover to digital did not lessen the sadness when the day finally arrived.

“We’re grateful the county is finding us positions, but we’re losing our chosen careers,” said Barbara Ely, a 24-year veteran, including 15 years in Towson.

Central control

Turnbull has already heard from lawyers concerned about losing the court reporters. Richard M. Karceski, a veteran Towson criminal defense attorney, said lawyers are accustomed to having a person take testimony verbatim.

“We’d rather have the reporters there,” he said. “What you need to be the most effective is to be able to review what a witness said.”

Some judges also prefer a court reporter to worrying about the recording equipment.

“I always had a court reporter,” said Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., a Baltimore County Circuit judge from 1984 until 1993. “A judge shouldn’t have to be the producer or director of the show.”

Andrew Treinis has heard all of the questions about the effectiveness and accuracy of digital recording. The president of North Chelmsford, Mass.-based CourtSmart Digital Systems Inc., Treinis points out that his company only provides the technology and is not responsible for the record itself.

“Technology depends upon its implementation,” he said.

To Treinis, the question is not which method is better, but which is more effective.

“The profession is changing,” Treinis said from his office in Massachusetts. “What profession is there that hasn’t been affected by technology?”

With CourtSmart, audio recordings in each courtroom are funneled to a central control room. Workers there can remotely control the settings in each courtroom, with the most common setup being one person controlling four courtrooms, according to CourtSmart’s website. The system allows for annotations and tags to be entered into the transcript, as well as playback into the courtroom.

Court reporters in Maryland receive at least $3 per page of a transcript under guidelines established by the Judiciary. The state is billed for requests by prosecutors or the public defender’s office; otherwise individual lawyers must pay the court reporters, according to Diana Wakefield, president of the Maryland Court Reporters Association.

A court reporter operating CourtSmart has more chances to transcribe cases, according to Treinis, noting that court reporters’ income in one Illinois jurisdiction jumped $100,000 after CourtSmart was installed.

“They’ve increased fourfold their ability to raise revenue,” Treinis said. “Court reporters have to embrace technology to use it to their advantage.”

Many of the Baltimore County court reporters have the latest stenograph machines with Bluetooth technology, meaning anyone on their network can get real-time reporting in the courtroom. It also can be used for closed captioning for jurors or witnesses who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“It’s not as though we’re not keeping up with the technology,” Anderson said.

Shifting need

The changes in Baltimore County come as employment opportunities for court reporters are projected to grow 18 percent through 2018, faster than the average for all occupations, according to a December 2009 report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, most of the growth will come in closed-captioning for broadcast and in translations, not the traditional service areas.

“Increasing numbers of civil and criminal cases are expected to create new jobs for court reporters, but budget constraints are expected to limit the ability of Federal, State, and local courts to expand, thereby also limiting the demand for traditional court reporting services in courtrooms and other legal venues,” the report states.

Jim Cudahy, a spokesman for the National Court Reporters Association, said courthouses across the country have converted to digital recording in search of what might be “phantom savings.”

“In an era where courts are looking for a place to cut, it’s an easy place to go to,” he said. “It’s simply not always done with the best interests of the court, the litigants and citizens in mind.”

The NCRA has 20,000 members, and Cudahy said there are around 36,000 stenographic reporters nationwide. The government estimates there were 21,500 court reporters nationwide as of 2008, with more than half working for state and local governments.

Court hearings or trials recorded digitally still must be transcribed onto paper for appellate purposes. And that’s where court reporter advocates say humans outshine than technology. Digital recording requires outsourcing to obtain transcripts, while a court reporter sitting in trial can turn around pages of testimony in a day upon request.

Wayne S. Goddard, who handles a variety of civil matters in the circuit court, has asked for and received settlement transcripts in less than a day from court reporters.

“They are very good in making sure the record is clear,” said Goddard, of Cuomo & Goddard LLP in Towson. “They appreciated and understood their role in the process.”

Joe Grabowski, owner of Gore Brothers Video & Recording Co. Inc., said court reporters “hear in three dimensions,” while transcribing off a recording is one-dimensional.

“The best way to capture the record is to have a court reporter there,” he said.

Wakefield, a court reporter in Prince George’s County for 12 years, and 35 overall, cited many reasons: coughing, the shuffling of papers, two people talking at once, someone speaking too soft or with a heavy accent.

“All these things leave gaping holes in court transcripts that are taken down digitally, whereas a court reporter can control these things by asking people to repeat what they said or instructing them that they can only take down one person at a time,” she said.

Should those problems arise in a digital recording, a court reporter is better trained to decipher the missing words or phrases, according to Marina Esworthy, who has been in Baltimore County for 13 of her 14 years as a court reporter.

“We’re not going to put ‘inaudible’ at first glance,” she said.

Judge Murphy recalled sending a “good many cases” back for retrial while sitting on the Court of Special Appeals because of inaudible transcripts. Lawyers’ attempts to re-create the record don’t always work, he said.

“To me, it’s being penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Murphy said of Baltimore County’s personnel decision.

But Murphy acknowledged that problems with transcripts from digital transcripts are uncommon, even though “it happens more than it should.”

Court of Special Appeals Judge Alexander Wright Jr., president of the Baltimore County Bar Association, has not heard any concerns from the group’s more than 1,200 members.

“I’ve never had a problem with accuracy,” Wright said. “It’s not something I ever looked at and I have not heard any other judge say anything about it.”

Similarly, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said that while court reporters are “superior,” he is not worried about the exclusive use of digital recording.

“The high quality you get with a court reporter is lessened, but you still get good transcripts that are preserved for the record,” he said.

Turnbull said he hopes to bring court reporters back for death penalty and other high-profile cases if they are available.

For now, court reporters will continue to transcribe in person the six-month trial of Jacksonville residents’ mass-action lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. stemming from a massive 2006 gasoline leak. Lawyers in the case, which is scheduled to conclude at the end of June, receive real-time transcription of testimony to computer screens in the courtroom.

Esworthy, though, said what qualifies as a “high-profile case” can be subjective.

“Everybody’s trial is big to them,” she said.