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‘You Still Have Those?’ National Shortage Of Court Reporters Hits Arizona

(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
Court Reporter Doreen Sutton types on her stenography machine at a recent deposition in Phoenix.

In most courtrooms across the country, you don’t see them or hear them.

Court reporters are silent bystanders in America’s judicial process. But, they play a vital role in it too.

Now, there’s a shortage of court reporters across the country. And, especially in rural areas, it can be difficult for courts to fill these positions.

“We hear that a lot, ‘Oh, are you guys still around?’” said Doreen Sutton, secretary-treasurer of the National Court Reporters Association. “I remember when I was in school 25 years ago, somebody said, ‘Oh, you still have those?’”

Sutton has been a court reporter for 25 years, and she loves it.

“It’s not easy, but it’s so worth it,” she said.

She said that it’s a meaningful career that’s flexible and interesting.

Court reporters aren’t only in the courtroom, they transcribe things like school classes for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and there’s a growing need for stenographers to type the closed captioning on televisions nationwide, she said.

“If you’ve ever watched a football game or a basketball game, and you see the closed captioning at the bottom, that’s a court reporter doing that,” she said. “There’s so much need for that.”

Sutton also runs her own stenography firm in the Valley, and she teaches two classes on court reporting to students, for free.

“I want to get more students in our schools,” she said. “I think that’s how we’re going to keep the technology and the viability and the legacy of the court reporting alive, quite frankly.”

The National Association of Court Reporters commissioned a study in 2014 that found that, by 2018, there will be a need of about 5,500 court reporters nationwide.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there are more than 20,000 court reporters in the U.S. But, Sutton said the numbers won’t add up soon.

“We are in a shortage,” Sutton said. “Because of aging out, maybe, people are retiring, just not enough students entering the field.”

According to Sutton, one problem courts have finding reporters is budgetary, “but the other is just finding, especially in the rural areas, reporters that can travel there or be there to report the proceedings,” she said.

Years of shortages in Arizona counties

Pima, Coconino, Yavapai and Mohave Counties all reported shortages or difficulty hiring court reporters in recent years when KJZZ contacted their court administrators or lead court reporters.

This year, in Yavapai County, the presiding judge issued an administrative orderallowing Early Disposition Courts in Prescott and Verde Valley to use an electronic recording system instead of certified court reporters.

And, court administrators in Greenlee and Apache Counties said they haven’t had a court reporter on staff for years.

“Unless you’re from a small town, you don’t want to work in a small town,” said Terry Aguilar, the only court reporter in Graham County, Arizona.

Aguilar has been a court reporter at the Superior Court there for almost four decades. They have two judges, and more cases than she can cover, she said.

“I can’t be there in every hearing and it’s not necessary,” Aguilar said.

She said, unless there’s a trial, or someone requests a transcript of a hearing, they use electronic recordings in their courtrooms in Graham County.

Arizona Supreme Court rules say actual, human court reporters are required in the courtroom for a Grand Jury or felony jury trial, death penalty murder cases, and some cases dealing with violent sexual crimes and parental consent for abortion.

A long-distance solution

In Cochise County, though, the Superior Court has become the first trial court in the country to try a new approach.

“We’ve been experiencing a lot of problems getting court reporters to cover our events,” said Eric Silverberg, court administrator in Cochise County. He said they’ve been short at least two court reporters for more than 3 years.

“We would hire freelance reporters, people who were reporters who had retired elsewhere and see if they would come down and work a few days, or maybe even a week, to cover the various court events,” he said.

But, freelancers work when they want to work, he said, so they realized they would have to find a more longterm solution.

Since May, Silverberg said they’ve been using remote stenographers. They got funding through their county Board of Supervisors, and worked with a company, Revo Text, to equip their 100-year old courthouse with cameras, microphones and high-speed internet, he said.

Now, court reporters who are certified in Arizona can remotely transcribe court proceedings, in real time.

Silverberg said they used to have to reschedule, or continue, hearings because they didn’t have a court reporter to cover them.

“Now, you aren’t continuing the hearings, because you have a reporter,” he said.

Every word counts

Sutton said she thinks it’s a good solution to the problem, but the best case scenario is always to have a court reporter in the room.

“At the end of the day, a human is best,” she said. “That’s all there is to it.”

Because, when it comes to the law, she said every stroke matters.

Early on in her career, she remembers making a mistake. “I wrote ‘now’ instead of ‘not,’ and went back and corrected it,” she said, “but things like that can change … the whole outcome of a case.”

And that is why, after 25 years, she knows there’s more at stake in her job than just accuracy.

“Lives are at stake, cases are at stake,” she said, “so, it’s very important that we get a very accurate record.”

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.