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LA Times Article

The following article appeared in the April 19, 2002 edition of The Los Angeles Times.

Putting It on Record, With a Human Touch

Court reporters who use stenographs to record proceedings have so far survived challenge of tapes and CD-ROMs.

By Laura Llor


April 19, 2002

Court stenographer Lena Villegas runs a continuous narrow strip of paper swiftly through her fingers, reading from it as easily as if it were newsprint.

"Koupbl aou phaeu teupb w kwror tkrebgt," reads the paper.

"Counsel, you may continue with your direct," Villegas translates aloud. Years of training and experience have made Villegas, 54, a master of stenotype shorthand, which is used to record the proceedings in courts across the country. Villegas, who works in the federal district courthouse in Los Angeles, types at a rate of 225 words per minute and can instantly decipher her notes and read them back to the judge.

Villegas' fingers lightly tap the small keyboard on her stenograph machine, hitting several keys at once to produce clusters of letters that spell out words in phonetic shorthand.

A baffling sight to the untrained eye, stenography dominates the field of court reporting. Two other methods of creating an official court record share the playing field: mechanical recording devices and stenomasking, in which a person softly repeats everything said in court into a mask that is hooked up to a recording device.

Stenographers, commonly known as court reporters, use a keyboard with only 25 keys (there are about 100 on a standard computer keyboard) that account for just 13 consonants and four vowels. It's designed so that any syllable can be written with a single stroke, with different fingers responsible for different parts of each syllable. The left hand types the beginning sound, usually a consonant, at the same time that the thumbs hit the appropriate vowel keys and the right hand types the syllable's end sound.

Letters on the keyboard's left side represent the sounds that most commonly begin syllables, and those on the right most frequently end syllables. There are three keys for the letter S because it is used so often, but none for letters such as C, M and N. Letters that don't appear on the keyboard are represented through a combination of existing letters.

A complicated system, yes. But one perfected over the years so that the least amount of "finger travel" is required to take down all the sounds of the English language.

Seasoned court reporters say their skill eventually becomes second nature. "You're able to think about something else while it's going in your ears and coming out your fingers," says ArnelIa Sims, who works in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Sims admits she sometimes thinks about her shopping list while working, albeit fleetingly. Most of the time, however, she tunes into the drama of the courtroom. Some lawyers consider her a "13th juror" and ask how they are doing, she says. She never divulges her opinion.

The stenograph machine was invented in the late 1800s, pitting machine against pen-wielding man. The device went mainstream after a national contest in 1914 in which several teenagers trained on shorthand machines consistently beat professional "pen writers," according to one historical account.

Modem court stenography has in turn been threatened by sound recording, which has gained prominence in the last two decades. In California, stenographers have warded off the electronic alternative by lobbying the Legislature, using the argument that their method is the most fail-proof. They've also adopted some of the best aspects of modem technology while holding fast to their traditional technique.

In the Los Angeles County Superior Court system, only 2% of the courtrooms use electronic recording devices. State law allows the system only for limited proceedings, including misdemeanor arraignments. In federal court, it's up to the judge. Three out of 27 judges in the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. District Court use electronic recording devices.

The latest technology in court recording is a digital device that records onto CD-ROMs, an improvement on the older dual-cassette system. The device is monitored by a person who logs the proceeding and can play the recording back for all in the courtroom to hear.

Some judges say the instant playback feature eliminates controversy about the record, which is sometimes called into question by lawyers. "When you have a court reporter, they have to read [the record] and the judge has to sit there and decide what the correct read-back is," says U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian.

With the electronic recording, a challenger is confronted by his or her own voice, unfiltered by a reporter's interpretation of what was said. "The tape doesn't lie," Tevrizian says.

Court reporters concede that they do sometimes make mistakes, but they insist that theirs is still the most reliable system. They point out that a machine can't distinguish between testimony and background noise, nor can it ask for clarification when a person fails to speak clearly or uses obscure or specialized terminology. "It's going to be a helluva computer that can sort that out," says Marshall Jorpeland of the Virginia-based National Court Reporters Assn.

In order to stay competitive in this high-tech age, about half of all court reporters in the country have mastered a system called real-time reporting. Real-time uses computer software to instantly translate stenographic machine shorthand into English, which is then relayed to computer screens in front of judges and, sometimes, attorneys. The translation software was originally developed to ease the task of creating readable transcripts from a reporter's notes. But reporters now are using it to do something they say no machine can do: provide instant transcripts.

"What do you do with a tape?" Jorpeland asks. "You have to transcribe it. It doesn't type itself."

Last month, the U.S. Judicial Conference approved a 10% salary increase for federal court reporters trained in real-time. Los Angeles County also gives its real-time reporters bonus pay.

Despite such advances, veteran court reporters say they are puzzled by the slight decline in-the number of new reporters in the state. Eight years ago, there were 40 court-reporting schools in California, according to the California Official Court Reporters Assn. As of last October, the number of schools had dropped to 18.

"We don't quite know why there are less people interested in going into court reporting," says Gary Cramer, a veteran reporter and executive director of the Los Angeles County Court Reporters Assn.

Advocates say the work is demanding, but fulfilling and lucrative. Los Angeles County Superior Courts offer a starting salary of $64,000. Federal court reporters start out at $58,000. Full-time reporters can earn tens of thousands of dollars a year beyond their base pay by selling their transcripts (at about $3 per page) to lawyers and other interested parties.

The best part of the work, many say, is the pride taken in producing an accurate account of a legal proceeding, something to which every defendant is entitled. Cases are reviewed daily and decisions affirmed or overturned based on court reporters' transcripts.

"Our job is one of the most important because we're creating the record that can be looked at for many years to come," says Sims, who worked the preliminary hearings in the McMartin preschool molestation case in the mid-1980s and the O.J. Simpson murder case several years later.

"Even after 26 years, the job is not stale and it's not routine," Sims says. "We're required to keep up with current events, because the world comes into the courtroom."