Objections raised as courtrooms go digital
In the cast of courtroom characters, they are as familiar as judges in black robes and bailiffs in uniform. Fingers fluttering on a keyboard, court reporters dutifully record every utterance, as they create the official transcripts of trials for murders, rapes, and other heinous crimes.
Now, court reporters, already a dwindling guild in Massachusetts, could become the latest American workers replaced by the inexorable advancement of technology.
Superior Courts across the state have started installing a new digital recording system that does not require a court reporter to take a live transcript of the proceedings, a $5 million project that will eventually encompass 455 courtrooms in 100 courthouses.
The change has stirred deep anxiety among some lawyers, judges, and other officers of the tradition-bound courts, who worry that transcripts will be riddled with errors and inaudible passages if they are not taken by an attentive court reporter witnessing the trial.
But in an era when technology is improving and court budgets are shrinking, legal specialists say that courts across the country are inevitably turning to digital recording systems.
Six states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, already use digital systems to record all or most of their trials, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Massachusetts has already replaced court reporters with recording equipment in most civil trials. The remaining 40 court reporters in the state document criminal trials, in which accurate transcripts are vital because they form the basis of most appeals.
Last month, court managers entered negotiations with the union that represents that last bastion of live court reporting. While officials insist no final decision has made been made, many who work in the courts are concerned that the remaining reporters will be phased out.
"This is an attempt to do this on the cheap, and it's not where I would want to be saving money," said Gary Wilson, a Suffolk Superior Court magistrate who has worked in the courts for 43 years. "I think it's penny-wise and pound foolish to fool around with the record on a very, very serious case."
Several lawyers and former judges said it could be difficult, if not impossible, for a transcriber listening to a recording to distinguish among lawyers shouting over one another, or striding across a courtroom.
They also pointed out that witnesses may speak too softly to be recorded by a microphone. And if the system stops working, the court may not realize it until it's too late to restore the record.
"People are concerned that very serious cases, like murder cases, will be using electronic recording without a track record that it's going to be up to the task," said Michael S. Hussey, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Court reporters, who earn $82,000 a year, can stop the proceedings if witnesses mumble, or if lawyers argue over one another, making their words difficult to hear, said Suzanne V. Del Vecchio, a former chief justice of the Superior Court.
"Obviously, with digital recording, that's not possible," Del Vecchio said.
Lewis H. Spence, the state's trial court administrator, declined to answer questions about the new system.
But in a recent e-mail to judges and staff, Spence wrote, "the transition to digital recording represents a significant change for the court, one that will expand capability and apply technology in important new ways."
The digital recordings will be uploaded to a central server, making them easier to track and locate, officials said. The system, made by an Australian company called For The Record, is used in 65 countries to record court, government, and law enforcement proceedings, according to the company's website.
Co-owner Tony Douglass said Massachusetts courtrooms will be outfitted with eight channels of audio, making it possible to isolate or slow down any voice that might be hard to hear.
"Digital recording, regardless of how you produce the transcript, gives you a very high quality recording of the court," Douglass said. "We've seen it in states all across America."
But Linda L. Kelly, a court reporter since 1977 and a fixture in Barnstable Superior Court since 1993, said she does not believe digital recordings can replace the quality of her transcripts.
She can type 260 words a minute and knows the names of local police officers and streets mentioned in trials. She said she is so committed to her craft that she recently spent $5,000 of her own money to buy an ergonomic steno-machine in a distinctive shade of burgundy called "dark ruby slippers."
"I wanted something with a little bit of sass, but not too much," Kelly said.
Not all court reporters type their notes; some speak into a recording device and transcribe later. Either way, a person is watching the action and documenting every utterance as it is spoken.
Kelly said digital recordings of trials are like compact discs with no track listings.
"How long would it take you to find your favorite song?" she said. "With real-time court reporting, you can find those spots in the transcript just by doing a word search."
Lee Suskin, a former court administrator in Vermont, said digital recording systems can work if the courts use "courtroom monitors" to ensure that the systems are recording properly and to write down names, unusual terms, and the start and end times of proceedings. That way, a typist listening to the recording can make an accurate and complete transcript, he said.
Massachusetts officials have not indicated whether they plan to hire "courtroom monitors."
"As far as I know, the states that have put that into effect have been able to make a record successfully, and there have not been any issues in making a transcript," Suskin said. "If you just turn on the machine and everyone starts talking, you have a problem."