For more than a century, court reporters have held front-row seats in courtrooms across Massachusetts, chronicling countless hours of testimony, oral arguments, and sidebar discussions.
But as of this week, the state is scrapping the position of court reporter, turning the bulk of the work over to digital recording equipment. The stated reason: to improve efficiency and process recordings and transcripts more quickly.
The change is not going over well among some lawyers, prosecutors, and the court reporters themselves, who say this isn’t how they wanted to leave their jobs.
“It’s a complete sea change for Massachusetts jurisprudence and trial practice,” said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “It’s the passing of a historic era.”
Only 21 court reporters remain on the job, down from 63 a decade ago. Some are stenographers and others are voice writers who speak into stenomasks to record everything said in the courtroom.
The digital recording equipment, the court reporters say, is no substitute for an attentive court reporter who witnesses the proceedings and later transforms what happened into a transcript.
“I think it’s foolish,” said Kathy Pallatroni, 59, who spent 18 years of her 38-year career as a court reporter for the state judicial system. “I think it’s putting a lot of faith in technology that isn’t quite there yet.”
The elimination of the court reporter position is the culmination of an effort by the Trial Court to automate its system for recording courtroom proceedings. Since 2009, court reporters have mostly been used in criminal sessions at the superior court while digital recording equipment did the rest of the work, documenting most civil cases and judicial business in other courts, said Erika Gully-Santiago, a court spokeswoman.
Three years ago, the Trial Court began rolling out an $18.2 million digital recording system made by the Australian company For The Record to replace earlier technology that was “outdated and had quality and maintenance issues,” according to the court system.
Court systems in at least 16 states are using digital recording in some form, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Bill Raftery, a senior analyst for the group, said cost savings and efficiency are the main reasons that court systems move to make the switch.
The state hired 19 “court monitors” to run the systems in courtrooms, paying them an annual salary of $68,290. Court reporters earn $85,899 a year, Gully-Santiago said. Fourteen monitors are former court reporters, she said.
“The decision to migrate to a new recording system was independent of any decision relative to court reporters and was not a cost reduction initiative,” she said in an e-mail.
In fact, court reporters aren’t being driven out completely.
Under a directive issued last month, court administrators will still have the authority to assign a court reporter to certain criminal proceedings, including trials for homicide and rape.
In those cases, court reporters will be paid a daily rate of $250.64 , about $80 less per day than what they earn as state employees.
Some lawyers who work exclusively in criminal sessions said they worry the digital recording system could malfunction or testimony could be rendered inaudible by people talking over each other or noises like traffic, shuffling papers, or someone tapping a pen.
Clear and accurate recordings of criminal proceedings are critical to creating transcripts used to form the basis of appeals, they said.
“Our main concern is that we have a complete and accurate record of everything that is said in a courtroom without any mistakes, because one error or an unnoticed malfunctioning of a taping system can do irreparable harm,” said Melissa Dineen, a managing director in the public defenders division at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said court reporters interrupt when they can’t hear clearly and ask speakers to repeat themselves. If a proceeding gets interrupted, court reporters can quickly read back the last question, he said.
“The electronic devices have been getting better over the years but I don’t believe they are a substitute for court reporters,” said Morrissey.
Healy said the Massachusetts Bar Association was initially alarmed by the decision to phase out court reporters, but has been convinced that the recording technology is working.
“We thought that a human actually recording the trial would be the best way to preserve what occurred,” he said. “We were subsequently convinced over many years and many meetings that the system was working.”
If a court proceeding is recorded electronically, a transcript can be ordered through the court’s Office of Transcription Services, which maintains a list of transcribers who prepare official transcripts. Transcripts cost between $1 and $4.50 per page.
Court reporter Nancy King said her career was full of memorable moments. She sat inches away from Tom Brady when he testified in a medical malpractice case, and documented the 2017 murder trial in which Aaron Hernandez was acquitted of killing two men.
King said she relished working in the criminal sessions in Suffolk Superior Court.
“I really loved it,” she said. “I just wanted to be here.”
The court reporters who are being phased out are taking different paths once their job ends. Almost all of them are women and none qualify for full retirement benefits, said George Noel, business manager for the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 6, which represents court reporters.
State Representative Paul J. Donato, a Medford Democrat, filed legislation last year to enhance the retirement benefits for court reporters in a plan similar to what was offered two years ago to some toll booth workers.
The bill is awaiting action by the House Committee on Ways and Means. Donato said the legislation has been held up because some lawmakers worry about the precedent it could set for other state workers who could see technology render their jobs obsolete.
If passed, Noel said, the measure would cost the state less than $500,000.
“It’s not a budget-buster,” he said. “No one’s hitting the jackpot.”
Even though Massachusetts is moving to digital recording, professional organizations at the state and national level for court reporters said their expertise is in demand even as the number of people trained in the field dwindles.
Court reporters are hired to document legal depositions and provide closed-captioning services. Others specialize in translating spoken words into printed English in real time for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“We need more court reporters,” said Megan Castro, president of the Massachusetts Court Reporters Association. “The demand is so huge.”
Susan Garvin, a court reporter in Worcester, said she has relished her 33 years recording court proceedings with her stenographic machine.
“You have a front-row seat to people’s stories,” she said. “I loved every day of my job.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.