“Are Court Stenographers Necessary?”

That’s the way the New York Times elected to phrase the question in the late night post on Room for Debate.  The Times called and asked me to submit a short piece. My piece and others provide the gristle for “debate.”  If you are interested in such issues, check it out.

As I have said before, court reporters are the third rail of federal judicial politics. This month I am living dangerously. It must be the chemo.


Lighting the fuse: It is time to get rid of court reporters in the federal courts

For a long time now, I have used digital audio recording, rather than a court reporter.   Digital audio recording is the marriage of a computer and a sophisticated sound system with multiple channels.  It is monitored by the courtroom deputy in real-time thus eliminating entirely the necessity of a court reporter.

Here are the reasons:

  • By uploading the digital audio recording of a trial or hearing every day to CM/ECF, the federal courts become more transparent to the public by an order of magnitude.  The whole world can listen to a trial I conduct in Nebraska for a very small cost–if I screw up, then the whole world can know it.  And, that is a VERY good thing.
  • While you will hear contrary arguments from court reporters, there is no independent, scientifically based, study that suggests that digital audio recording is less accurate than stenographic recording. In fact, the believable studies that have been conducted suggest that there is no difference or audio recording is slightly more accurate.
  • The reliability of digital audio is as good as or better than a court reporter. In fact, I had far more problems with court reporters getting sick or getting tired or their steno machines failing than I have had problems with digital audio.
  • Digital audio recording can do “play backs” and judges can annotate and make notes on their computer screen as the digital recording is made.
  • Digital audio recording saves the federal courts money.   For example, an internal study I conducted of our court three years ago indicated that the public would be saved about $110,000 per year if 3 reporters were replaced with digital audio recording.  My study was very conservative.  The Clerk’s office senior management was consulted about it and found no basis to dispute the conclusion.
  • Lawyers experienced with digital audio recording love it because they can log into CM/ECF anytime, night or day, and review the record when writing a brief or for any other reason.  A lawyer can do so without having to  pay a reporter for a transcript. Citations to digital audio are easy.  One simply refers to the time-counter used to play the audio.
  • A large federal trial court, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, implemented digital audio recording successfully as a part of pilot project.  The District of Nebraska was also a participant in that pilot project, and our experience was uniformly positive as well.

I want to be clear. I don’t want any more court reporters hired, but I don’t want court reporters fired.  I do want court reporters replaced with digital audio as they retire or resign. Given the sequester, now is the time to begin this process. To put the matter in stark relief, for every court reporter we replace, we can devote the savings to retaining essential personnel such as federal public defenders.


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