The iconic figure of the court stenographer has largely been replaced by digital recording devices in Superior Court in Hackensack and Paterson and almost all such courtrooms in New Jersey as the state judiciary moves toward new technology.
Proponents say the change is a successful, cost-effective attempt by courts to keep pace with technology and keep reliable records of proceedings. But the switch also is being watched closely by skeptics, who say recording technology is never a full substitute for a court reporter.
Of concern are the uniquely human aspects now absent. For instance, court reporters often interrupt proceedings to get every word uttered by someone in a low tone or if more than one person is speaking at once. Recording equipment cannot do that, which explains the "inaudible" entries that often punctuate court transcripts from digital recordings.
"It's a transition from accurate records to adequate records," said Bob Tate, president of the Certified Court Reporters Association of New Jersey.
But court officials counter that the recording system is reliable: More often than not, inaudible words and phrases are not pivotal to proceedings, and even when they are, court rules allow for transcripts to be revised and corrected. Recording systems also have backup systems against failure, and besides, court reporters make mistakes, too.
"No system is perfect," said Judge Peter Doyne, assignment judge for Bergen County, N.J. "But from a technological point of view, we are trying to take advantage of the opportunities that (recording equipment) offers."
More than 400 courtrooms statewide now have digital recording, leaving about 50 remaining courtrooms to be fitted with the new technology by September, state judiciary officials said.
All court proceedings must be recorded, either by court reporters or by devices -- a legal requirement designed to preserve a person's right to appeal a court ruling. Stenographers were commonly the only means of recording proceedings until analog recording, followed by video and digital recording, were introduced to courtrooms over the last several decades. In recent years, budget cuts in judiciaries nationwide have prompted installation of recording equipment in courtrooms to replace court reporters, Tate said.
A high-tech digital recording system costs $15,000 to $18,000 per courtroom, said Jeff Newman, deputy clerk of the Superior Court's Appellate Division. A court reporter comes with an average salary of $50,000 to $60,000 a year, Tate said.
The state judiciary also installed video recording equipment in many courtrooms, including nine in Bergen and one in Passaic, Newman said. At more than $45,000 per courtroom, however, the cost of that project was running high, and the judiciary stopped such installations about 10 years ago, Newman said.