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The court reporter assigned to transcribe the Scott Peterson trial is in for six months of double shifts, fast-talking attorneys and a mountain of media requests. That was life for Los Angeles court reporter Janet Moxham after the O.J. Simpson trial landed in her lap nine years ago. Even with gavel-to-gavel television coverage, Moxham sold Simpson watchers daily real-time reporting feeds, working round the clock with fellow Los Angeles County Superior Court reporter Christine Olson. “I was sleeping three hours a night,” Moxham said. But 18-hour days could mean a new car, or a down payment on a condo, for whoever draws the Peterson case. Though the state pays court reporters in California a salary plus full benefits, the reporters themselves profit from the transcripts they produce. And in the Peterson case, the bill for a single transcript of the pretrial proceedings alone is about $2,100. That goes to the reporters in Stanislaus County; with the trial now venued in San Mateo, a local reporter is likely to step in. Moxham described as “inflated” the estimates that she and Olson made half a million dollars in extra fees, but there is no doubt that court reporters on a Scott Peterson or Michael Jackson trial can earn into the six figures. “They make out like bandits if they can sell a lot of copies. That’s a court reporter’s retirement fund, to get a big case like that,” said Richard Power, a Shingle Springs appellate attorney. There have been plenty of calls over the years to change the way court reporters are paid. In addition to spending $160 million on salaries and benefits for court reporters this year, taxpayers will pay an additional $25 million to purchase the work product in criminal cases, according to figures from the Administrative Office of the Courts. Chief Justice Ronald George has a task force looking at reporter fees. But changing the way they work won’t be easy. “The reporters have had a very strong lobby with the state Legislature forever,” said Los Angeles appellate attorney and task force member Edward Horowitz. “They are the court system equivalent of the NRA in terms of lobby power — although they are not as dangerous.” Lobbyist and Sacramento attorney Barry Broad, who represents the California Official Court Reporters Association, warns that a focus on “ruthless efficiency” could take a toll on accuracy. “It’s a debate that has bearing on public policy issues because court reporters make official records of events. Those records need to be produced quickly and accurately,” Broad said. “Someone’s freedom may depend on it or huge financial questions may be at stake in civil cases.” Transcribing a high-profile trial is like having two full-time jobs, court reporters say. Moxham said she spent an eight-hour day in the courtroom recording every word uttered by Judge Lance Ito, the attorneys and the witnesses. “We were doing in excess of 300 pages a day,” Moxham said. “With Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, we’d estimated short spurts of 300 words a minute.” All that expert testimony about DNA and blood splatters, coupled with a noisy courtroom full of spectators, made for challenging work. Moxham said Judge Ito pushed them to provide real-time reporting, so attorneys and the media could read instantaneous raw transcript. “I didn’t want to do real time for the media,” said Moxham, “and the judge said I had to do it.” When the day of testimony was done, Moxham said, her work had just begun. She and Olsen spent evenings proofreading and perfecting the transcripts. The state’s court reporters are responsible for providing their own equipment, including stenograph machines, cables, computers, software, printers and transcript paper. It was also Moxham’s responsibility to take orders, install cables and make arrangements with media who wanted to buy real-time feeds and transcripts. Moxham said that could be as trying as producing the transcript. “We had a problem with the print media [accusing us of] price gouging,” Moxham said. “They said we were charging too much for something they wanted in 20 minutes.” Just because a case has caught the public’s attention doesn’t automatically mean there will be a huge demand for transcripts. Santa Clara County Superior Court reporter Cindy Mohr stenographed the trials of Richard Allen Davis, killer of Polly Klaas, and Cary Stayner, who killed three women in Yosemite a few years ago. Mohr said she worked until midnight so she could turn the transcripts around within the 24 hours allotted in capital cases, but saw little outside interest in them. Mohr said the media didn’t want to devote additional resources to the trial. “[Journalists] are there in court. They are pretty good note-takers themselves,” Mohr said. Maura Baldocchi, president of the California Official Court Reporters Association, said reporters are just doing their jobs when they meet the media’s demand for court records. “We aren’t out there hawking transcripts,” said Baldocchi, a San Francisco Superior Court reporter. “We are out there providing a service.” But new technology is making court reporting easier to do — and easier to sell — even compared to nine years ago when O.J. was making headlines. Court reporters can now sell transcripts in closely watched cases via the Internet. Real Legal, a Colorado-based company, acts as a middleman between court reporters and transcript shoppers. Real Legal Associate General Counsel Rebecca Askew said the business began during the Oklahoma City bomber trial. Real Legal now sells transcripts for every major trial across the country, Peterson’s included. In that case, the company charges the rate mandated by state law for copies, which works out to about 55 cents per page of testimony. That money goes to the court reporter. Real Legal which is affiliated with The Recorder charges a $20 fee to view each quarter-day’s worth of proceedings. “We try to help the court reporters maximize their time and minimize their costs,” Askew said. “We have [journalists] at Court TV and CNN who love using us.” Real Legal CEO Bill Feid wouldn’t release the number of transcripts sold in the Peterson trial. “That’s confidential,” he said. But big paydays could soon be over for court reporters. The Judicial Council’s task force on recording court proceedings wants to change the way reporters get paid for transcripts. “I am aware that court reporters in some cases have made substantial amounts of money in high-profile cases,” said Fifth District Court of Appeal Justice James Ardaiz, who chairs the task force. Ardaiz said court reporters are a cross between contractors and court employees who cost an average of $100,000 a year in salary and benefits. The task force will recommend changing the way reporters figure the cost of transcripts, Ardaiz said. Another task has been determining who owns the written records. “The task force has now concluded that court paid transcripts — they will be clearly defined as public domain,” Ardaiz said. Reporters contend they own the record and charge for each copy using a pricing system based on folios, a holdover from typesetter days. Court reporters bill 85 cents per folio (or 100 words) for original transcripts, and 20 cents per folio for copies. Horowitz said that amounts to about $3 a page for an original transcript, depending on how an individual reporter chooses to calculate folios. “The rules are so arcane it’s hard to understand how anyone computes the cost,” Horowitz said. “A reporter may charge you a substantially different amount based on the same rules. There have been some pretty blatant abuses over time.” Horowitz, an appellate specialist, said he’s constantly explaining to his clients why they’re being billed five and six figures for transcripts. Horowitz used the 75-volume transcript from O.J. Simpson’s civil trial as an example. “You would probably pay $100,000 for an original and a copy,” he said. Baldocchi said her group is willing to negotiate and has agreed, in talks with the task force, to change the way they calculate transcript costs to a straight per-word fee. “I always think there is room to talk about reforming the law,” Baldocchi said. “Technology has sped up the process, but it hasn’t lessened the amount of effort that goes into producing the transcript.” But lobbyist Broad said the current system works efficiently. And after fighting off recent attempts to eliminate court reporters, and “put in a tape machine and send the tape to India for transcription,” Broad said they’re cautious about legislative changes. A battle between court reporters and administration is brewing in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The court wants to install recording devices in four misdemeanor arraignment and pretrial courtrooms to save money. But state law forbids the use of recording devices if court reporters are available. “There is a difference of opinion on the term availability,” said Kim Kelly, assistant court executive. “We have eight vacant positions for court reporters out of 86. We have a hiring freeze in place so we are not prepared to fill any positions.” Santa Clara’s court reporters are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 715, which has sent the court a series of questions it wants answered. “Anybody who is a worker in the system, including court reporters, wants to hear that if the budget is cut, sacrifices are made equitably,” Broad said. “Are judges’ salaries and judges’ pensions being considered? How are other workers in the court system going to share the burden?” Horowitz said he doesn’t want to exploit court reporters, who must work outside court and into the evenings. He just wants a system that’s fair to everyone. “A reporter gets into a Peterson case, he or she is going to work his tail off. They are entitled to get more money for that. They are not just a 9-to-5 [worker]. But I don’t think they should be able to give themselves a premium on top of that by computing rates secretly,” Horowitz said. “If court reporters don’t act reasonably, they run the risk of going out of business.”

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