Rural Counties Brace for Court-Reporter Shortage
Even as Demand Grows, Fewer Programs Training Court Reporters
EBENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — When Cambria County court reporter Kelly Corcoran went to school for her line of work, there were about a dozen court reporting programs to choose from across the state.
Now, there are two. Corcoran and other Cambria County officials say they are concerned about filling a number of court reporter vacancies coming up in the next couple years due to retirements. They point to the trends of fewer training programs available and students opting to settle in larger cities after graduation, along with a shift in technology in some courtrooms.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the National Court Reporters Association based in Vienna, Virginia, the demand for court reporters will soon exceed the supply nationwide, despite a transition to digital recording in some courtrooms.
“Decreased enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters, combined with significant retirement rates, will create by 2018 a critical shortfall predicted to represent nearly 5,500 court reporting positions,” the study says, adding that opportunities for court reporting job placement will be “substantial.”
In Cambria County, President Judge Timothy Creany said the demand for court reporters is increasing, along with the number of cases the county handles. The county employs 10 full-time court reporters but currently has nine, he said, and, despite advertising in a variety of publications, is still looking for someone to fill the vacant spot.
There are also two or three current court reporters who are considering retirement within the next year or so, which will create more vacancies.
“We have a real problem,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able to address it.”
In Pennsylvania, perspective court reporters have one of two options for their schooling: Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh or Orleans Technical College in Philadelphia. Corcoran and Creany said that after graduation, students often choose to accept jobs in or near the cities where they went to school, rather than seeking jobs in more rural settings.
“Smaller counties like Cambria are going to have to step up if we’re going to fill the positions,” Creany said.
Creany said there is inequity in court reporters’ salaries across the state, which can sway applicants away from certain positions, and there are ongoing studies about how the costs of transcripts are handled.
Currently, court reporters are reimbursed at a certain rate for the transcripts they type. But some proposals seek to make transcripts property of the county, changing the way court reporters are compensated, he said.
In addition to potential changes in how court reporters are paid, some courtrooms in larger cities are opting to use digital voice recognition devices to record court proceedings.
Corcoran said she’s heard of the devices creating issues. Transcripts may become unclear when two attorneys speak at the same time, which isn’t unusual in the courtroom.
“It’s just a big, garbled mess,” she said.
Creany also questioned the reliability of the devices, which could inadvertently record confidential conversations between attorneys and their clients, or have problems recognizing different inflections , accents and vocabulary terms if an expert is testifying.
Mary Beth Johnson, the program director and professor of court reporting at Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, said the school has “maintained a steady enrollment of court reporters” and thinks it will continue to do so, because of what an actual court reporter can offer over a machine.
“The profession has changed over the years, but remains viable because of our human brain,” she said. “We can distinguish between which ‘maid’ ‘made’ the bed. We can stop two people from talking over each other. We can punctuate as we write and interrupt if we need a name repeated or spelled Kathy, Kathie or Cathy, for example.”
Nativa Wood, a Bishop McCort High School graduate and vice president of the National Court Reporters Association, agreed. When a voice recognition or audio recording device is used in lieu of a court reporter, “there’s no one there whose sole concern is the record,” she said. “That can impact the trial.”
Wood has been a court reporter for nearly 38 years. She acknowledged the predicted shortage in the court reporters and said the profession should be promoted more in high schools so that students are aware of the job possibilities and how the job has changed.
She said many people are under the assumption that court reporting is “old-fashioned or outdated.”
“That could not be further from the truth,” she said, mentioning how new devices, like those currently used in the Cambria County Courthouse, allow court reporters to transcribe efficiently, without paper, and store pages worth of transcripts on a small memory card.
While some certified court reporters choose to go into freelance work, traveling all over the country to type “closed captioning” for live television, or transcribe interviews after sporting events, Corcoran said there are advantages to working in the courtroom.
“When I did freelance work, I didn’t get to know anybody,” she said. “Now, I work with the same people everyday, but I do something different every day.”