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Perched over their three-legged stenography machines, rapidly tapping away in shorthand, court reporters long have been as much a fixture of the courtroom as the judge, the attorneys and the bailiffs. That was then. Now, in a growing number of courtrooms in South Florida and around the country, the venerable stenographer is being replaced by electronic recording systems. Florida’s 3,000 court reporters are well on their way to becoming an extinct species. Instead of having people record legal proceedings fastidiously by hand, South Florida courts are installing digital systems that use computers, microphones and sometimes video cameras to capture the proceedings and provide the legally mandated record of all criminal proceedings. The electronic systems are monitored by a staffer located either in the courtroom or in a central command booth, where the person monitors the recording of as many as a dozen courtroom proceedings at a time. At the end of a hearing or trial, participating lawyers receive a slim compact disc instead of a thick written transcript, although they can order transcripts for a fee. Palm Beach County Circuit Court, which serves as a model, has used digital recording since 1991 and currently is phasing it in in all its criminal courts, while waiting for its four remaining court reporters to retire. Soon, that circuit will have live court reporters working only on civil cases. In contrast, in both the Miami-Dade and Broward circuit courts, digital recording is used, for now, only in county and juvenile court cases. Miami-Dade went digital more than three years ago, while Broward switched over in March. Miami-Dade is delaying plans to move digital recording into felony courtrooms, pending next year’s state takeover of court funding. Many judges and court administrators are delighted with digital recording. The main advantages are that it’s about half as expensive as court reporters and addresses the critical shortage of qualified stenographers. The Palm Beach County Circuit Court reports substantial savings from digital recording. Rick Hussey, manager of the county’s court reporting services, said that while the circuit pays court reporters $32 per hour, it pays digital recording monitors just $11.71 an hour. For written transcripts, court reporters receive $5.50 a page, while monitors receive $1.75. The parties pay $10 each for a compact disc recording of a hearing or trial. In some cases, circuits also are going digital in their civil courtrooms, even though parties in civil cases are responsible for making their own transcripts, and private court reporting and transcription services run lucrative businesses providing civil trial records. “We were facing a chronic shortage of court reporters, and seeing court reporting schools closing all over,” said Ed Whitehouse, coordinator of court reporting services for Miami-Dade County, which started using digital recording three years ago. “And the fact that digital recording saves money doesn’t hurt either.” But some defense lawyers and public defenders fear that confidential discussions between attorneys and clients will be picked up on the microphones, and that the digital recordings won’t be as accurate or reliable as the work of stenographers. They point to several cases around the country that had to be retried because digital recording systems failed. Because of the concern about confidentiality, Diane Cuddihy, Broward’s chief assistant public defender, said she plans to file motions to object in future trials where digital recording is used. Indian River County Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek in Vero Beach, whose circuit uses digital recording in all cases except capital cases, generally praises digital recording as a cheaper way to go. But he notes that it has its limitations. “If a person says something unintelligible,” Judge Kanarek said, “a good court reporter will say, ‘I didn’t hear that, can you repeat it?’ The [digital recording] monitor won’t.” TOUGH JOB, SHORT SUPPLY Under Florida law, criminal and juvenile courts are required to make a verbatim record of all proceedings. The court must provide written transcripts to the parties, upon request, for purposes of appeal. Unless a party is indigent, the party must pay for the transcripts. In civil cases, the parties are responsible for arranging and paying for their own record of court proceedings. Court reporters attend special schools or programs to learn the complex stenographic shorthand. Most schools require them to type at the lightning rate of 225 words per minute when they are in court. After a court proceeding, they typically transcribe 25 to 40 pages an hour. Florida is one of the few states with no state certification of court reporters. But court reporter schools and programs have been closing around the state. Broward Community College’s program was closed several years ago. In the past decade, Miami-Dade College (formerly Miami-Dade Community College) has seen enrollment in its court reporting program plummet. Court reporting pays well. A large percentage of court reporters work as freelancers. Others work for firms, mostly mom-and-pop companies, while a small percentage work directly for the courts. The average annual pay in South Florida is about $75,000, said Wayne House, former owner of Merritt Reporting in Fort Lauderdale. Despite the good pay and strong demand up to now, there are a number of reasons for the shortage of people to fill these jobs, experts say. Court reporters typically work long hours under high stress. When they go home at night, they must transcribe their stenographic notes. The burnout rate is high. And the job requires well-educated, literate people who may be attracted to higher-paying, higher-prestige professions. In addition, court reporters increasingly are being enticed by job offers to do real-time transcription for TV networks, serving the hearing impaired, which is more lucrative than legal work. The shortage has been particularly acute in Broward. Two years ago, judges at the 4th District Court of Appeal were stymied in handling some appeals because they weren’t receiving trial transcripts in a timely way from the Broward Circuit Court. Besides the scarce supply of court reporters, court officials say another reason for the rise of digital recording is that it’s less expensive than hiring stenographers. That’s of particular interest now to state officials, with the state of Florida preparing to take over financing for all essential court costs by next July. BY THE DOZEN Each of the three South Florida judicial circuits has adopted a slightly different digital recording system. In 1991, Palm Beach County Circuit Court was the first circuit in the state to employ digital recording. There, a staffer, called a monitor, sits in a high-tech control room manning a computer and watching a dozen courtrooms on split-screen monitors. The computer is wired to cameras and microphones in the courtrooms. The mics, placed in the jury box, at the judge’s bench and at defense and prosecution tables, pick up testimony as well as sidebars between the judge and attorneys. The cameras allow the monitor to view the proceedings. But only an audio recording is made. At the end of the trial or hearing, anyone can obtain a compact disc audio recording of the proceeding from court administration for a nominal fee. For an extra fee, they can order a written transcript of the proceeding, which is typed up by the monitor after the hearing or trial. The Broward Circuit Court uses a similar system, but a monitor only watches two courtrooms at a time instead of a dozen. The system at the Miami-Dade Circuit Court works quite differently. It has no cameras in the courtrooms. Instead, a human monitor sits in each courtroom, taking detailed notes on the proceedings and inserting keywords into the digital recording at significant points to allow for quick search. For example, if a judge or lawyer wants to play back a defendant’s confession, the monitor can quickly locate the keyword “confession” on the digital recording. Ed Whitehouse said having a monitor in each courtroom taking notes has a big advantage over one monitor overseeing a number of courtrooms. “Logic will tell you that one person watching four courtrooms will not be able to take detailed notes,” Whitehouse said. “We feel it’s more precise to have a monitor in each courtroom, and judges feel more comfortable with a live body there.” Palm Beach County Circuit Court uses digital recording throughout the county court and in half of the felony division. It is phasing out its four remaining court reporters through attrition; at that time, the entire criminal court system will go digital, Rick Hussey said. The only area in which the circuit doesn’t plan to use the new technology is in the civil division, where attorneys currently hire private court reporting and transcription services, Hussey said. Miami-Dade and Broward also plan to keep digital recording out of their civil divisions. “We don’t want to be stepping on the toes of the private sector,” Hussey explained. “Transcriptions in medical malpractice cases can be very profitable for them.” Court administrators in Miami-Dade and Broward offer similar explanations. But Russell Adler, president of the Broward County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, questions the decision not to use digital recording in civil courtrooms. He notes that doing so could save civil litigants money. “I don’t see any reason why digital recording shouldn’t be used,” he said. “Court reporting can be quite expensive.” Reflecting the tug faced by court administrators, Adler added: “There are a lot of very nice court reporters out there, and I don’t want to see them lose their jobs.” Palm Beach County Circuit Court faced the same resistance when it initially switched to digital recording more than a decade ago, recalls court administrator Susan Ferranti. “There was a groundswell of protest from lawyers, protecting their relationships with court reporters,” she said. INSTANT REPLAY In Miami-Dade, the circuit started with the domestic violence courts, and expanded digital recording last October to juvenile, county and branch courts. The court spent $10,000 per courtroom to install the electronic equipment, Whitehouse said. The county spends $200 a day on salary for a court reporter, versus $114 a day for a person to monitor the digital recording in each courtroom. The circuit currently contracts out court reporting to seven private firms, while contracting out digital recording to two firms. One of the firms offering digital is one of the oldest court reporting firms in Miami, Har-Mel Reporters. Har-Mel does not use court reporters as digital monitors, Whitehouse said. Digital recording also offers Miami-Dade lawyers savings on transcripts. Court reporters are paid $4.75 a page for transcripts. In comparison, the county charges $3.78 a page for transcripts produced by its in-house digital monitors. Most attorneys request CDs, then arrange for their own transcripts. Miami-Dade is saving a total of $300,000 a year using digital, Whitehouse said. But Miami-Dade, like many circuits in Florida, has put on hold any plans to implement digital recording in felony courtrooms. It’s waiting until next year, when the state of Florida will pick up all core court costs under the 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment. Then it will be up to the state to decide whether to implement digital recording or not. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Samuel Slom, who serves as administrative judge of the criminal division, praises the instant-replay feature of digital. He has asked for playbacks when lawyers insisted they had said they weren’t ready for trial and he remembered differently. “If there’s a disagreement about something that happened three weeks ago in a case, it offers a wonderful opportunity for instantaneous playback during a trial,” Slom said. “Previously, we would have to order a transcript and that could take two weeks to get.” But Slom acknowledged that it hasn’t always been easy personally to phase out the old system. “You develop relationships with your court reporters,” he said. In March, the Broward Circuit Court adopted digital recording in its county court and juvenile division courtrooms. The circuit paid Boston-based Systems Inc. $750,000 to equip the courtrooms, and it hired nine in-house monitors at a cost of $1 million annually, said Tom Furst, Broward’s chief deputy court administrator. Broward has saved $100,000 so far, out of a total court reporting budget of $2.1 million, but expects the system to pay for itself in 3 and 1/2 years, he said. RETRIALS But defense lawyers and court reporters warn that the South Florida courts are taking chances in relying on electronic systems for something as crucial as official court records. They cite some disturbing examples of system failures. In 2001, a trial in Oregon’s Marion County in the case Steelheaders v. Simantel was to decide who owned the headwaters and banks of the John Day River. The case involved 186 defendants. The courtroom had a digital recording system. The judge declared a mistrial after it turned out that only bits and pieces of the five-day trial had been recorded by the digital recording system. Both the main system and a back-up system apparently failed. The case was retried last year and is now on appeal. In 2000, the Ontario Superior Court, ruling on a man’s appeal seeking to overturn his impaired driving conviction, slammed the trial court for providing a botched transcript that had missing sections. The trial court had relied on a recording system and a monitor rather than a court reporter. “This is not a case with a missing piece of transcript — there is no official transcript,” Justice Casey Hill wrote. “The profession of court reporting with its long and valued history in this province has been systematically eroded.” Wayne House predicts that such problems will occur in South Florida, too, and that “the state is going to wind up spending a fortune on retrials. [Digital recording] is cheaper, but will it be cheaper in the long run?” The Broward defense bar is particularly resistant to digital recording, at least partly because of concerns about attorney-client confidentiality. Defense lawyers note that unlike live court reporters, electronic recording systems aren’t sensitive to what’s on and off the record, and there may or may not be a human monitor in the courtroom. “We’re against it because our informal survey shows that it hasn’t worked elsewhere,” said Charles Kaplan, a past president of the Broward Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. “We need to be able to talk to our clients without it being picked up on the microphones.” Diane Cuddihy, Broward’s chief assistant public defender, worries that she won’t know who’s sitting in the control room and won’t have confidence that confidential discussions won’t be recorded. “When there’s a court reporter, the judge introduces that person at the start of the trial and you know who’s in the room,” she explained. “But you don’t know who could be in the control room.” Furst dismisses the criticism. He points out that there’s a mute button at each microphone that allows for private discussions. There also are concerns about sound quality and accuracy. Tony Natale, president of the Palm Beach County Criminal Defense Attorney’s Association, said that “if two people are talking at once, they cancel each other out.” Prosecutors also have concerns. Georgia Cappleman, an assistant state attorney in Leon County, said microphones in the digitally equipped courtrooms are of “pretty poor quality.” She once found that when she played back a recording to listen to an incriminating statement by a defendant, the tape was barely audible. “It’s been problem,” she said. JOBS WILL BE LOST Not surprisingly, some of the biggest objections about digital recording come from those whose jobs could be eliminated by it. While it hasn’t opposed digital recording outright, the Florida Court Reporters Association, which represents an estimated 3,000 court reporters in the state, has recommended a combination of live court reporting and digital recording. The association suggests using digital recording in misdemeanor cases, which are shorter, while retaining court reporters for felony cases, said Jennifer Gaul, a court reporter who serves as the association’s southern director. Gaul said there will be a continuing need for court reporters as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Effective in 2006, the law will require a court reporter to be available at the courthouse to produce a real-time transcript for hearing-impaired parties. But Gaul predicts that court reporters will be laid off next year when the cash-strapped state of Florida takes over court funding throughout the state.

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