New Program Strives To Train Digital Court Reporters

August 1, 2018

Court reporters play an integral role in our justice system, but their numbers have been on a steady decline in recent years. Veteran court reporters are retiring and a younger generation has not stepped up to meet the need, in no small part because many schools that once offered court reporting programs have either closed or stopped offering those programs.

In Tennessee, the most pressing need for court reporters is in criminal courts. State law requires court reporters to be present during all criminal proceedings. If there are no court reporters available because of a shortage, that means that a court proceeding has to be delayed. With many in jail awaiting a hearing or trial date, that is an obstacle that can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Finding a Solution

Recently, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, with the assistance of several partner organizations, took a major step to help redress this problem. The first results of the AOC’s efforts were apparent on a recent Saturday at Nashville State Community College, when nine people received certificates of completion for a ten-week course in digital court reporting.

The goal of the course is to teach students the fundamentals of digital court reporting and help replenish the ranks of court reporters in Tennessee’s criminal justice system. The course’s curriculum was developed at Pellissippi State Community College, with the special assistance of the school’s Executive Director of Economic and Workforce Development Teri T. Brahams and its Director of Workforce Solutions Todd Evans. Funding was provided by the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs.

Nashville State’s Workforce and Community Development department was chosen to deliver the first iteration of the course given its central location in the state. Next, the AOC plans to offer the program elsewhere, including at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis.

While reporting in civil court proceedings is generally paid for by one of the parties to the suit, the State of Tennessee hires court reporters for criminal cases, predominantly on a contract basis. Increasingly, it has become more and more difficult to find reporters to fill those positions. According to 2018 statistics from the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), the average age of a court reporter in the United States is 55.   Currently, there are only 31 court reporting schools in the entire country, with none at all in Tennessee.

Further complicating recruitment efforts is the fact that court reporting can be a demanding job, both in terms of difficulty and expense. This can be especially true for stenographic court reporting — a type of shorthand that utilizes a keyboard to combine syllabic sounds rather than individual letters. To become licensed, stenographic court reporters have to attain a proficiency of 225 words per minute, a challenging goal that can take years to accomplish. Those reporters also must purchase their own equipment, which costs thousands of dollars.

The AOC’s Court Reporter Training Project, as the 68-hour course is called, seeks to counter some of those complicating factors. First and foremost, it is geared toward educating digital court reporters.

All criminal proceedings in Tennessee have been electronically recorded using an analog recording system since 1965, regardless of whether the reporter used a stenograph machine as a backup. Digital recording systems were installed beginning in 2007. A digital court reporter does not transcribe these proceedings in real-time, but oversees the recording software, makes notes as needed, and then transcribes the proceedings later.

A Rewarding Profession

Edith Fletcher taught the recent course at Nashville State, and she also sat on the Court Reporter Task Force, which the AOC formed in 2017 to explore innovative ways to address the court reporter shortage. Fletcher has been a court reporter since 1996, right after she graduated from the now-defunct Court Reporting Institute of Tennessee. She first worked for private firms but then later became an official court reporter for the State of Tennessee.

She said that the life of a court reporter was full of rewards. The most notable of those for her was the constant, refreshing newness of the job.

“You learn every day in court reporting,” she said. “That’s what I really love about it. There’s never a day that goes by when I say I‘ve heard it all. You never hear it all. It’s always something new and different, and you just go with it. It’s an exciting career.”

She said that the best court reporters are eager learners. They enjoy the accumulation of knowledge that comes with being immersed in a case for hours or days.

“If you’re the type of person who is curious and wants to know about all sorts of stuff that’s the field to be in,” she said.

Fletcher also said that court reporting provided ample opportunity for economic advancement. According to the NCRA, starting salaries for court reporters average just below $45,000 a year. Given the surplus of available jobs out there, though, Fletcher said that students have the opportunity to make even more.

“The sky is the limit,” she said. “I tell the students you can work as hard and can get as much money as you want.”

Fletcher’s class touched on a number of different topics related to court reporting. There were the basics of grammar and good writing, but also introductions to a host of other subjects relevant to the life of someone who spends their career in the courtroom.

“We’ve covered legal terminology, we’ve covered medical terminology, we’ve covered anatomy, we’ve covered the court system,” she said.

In addition to the weekly Saturday classes, four stand-alone sessions were also scheduled during the week. These sessions featured hands-on training with the recording software that State of Tennessee reporters oversee in courtrooms.

Celebrating Graduation Day

The mood was bright at the Saturday course graduation ceremony at Nashville State. There was cake, lemonade, and a number of enthusiastic students eager to put their newly learned skills to use.

No less enthusiastic was Mary Rose Zingale, court services director at the AOC. Zingale, along with Connie Turner, the AOC’s coordinator of court reporting services, helped launch the program.

“We are so excited, and on behalf of Deborah Taylor Tate, the director of the AOC, I want to thank you for your hard work on this,” Zingale told the graduating class. “It is extremely important that we have recordings and reporters in our courts to make sure that we continue to provide the best due process we possibly can.”

Zingale went on to emphasize for the students the necessity of the court reporter’s job, explaining how instrumental it is to the cause of justice.

“In a courtroom, your liberty’s at stake,” she said. “You could be going to jail or prison for years and years and having court reporters there taking down the word, transcribing what was said for appellate purposes and for posterity is extremely important. It’s the basis of our judicial system.”

As far as the first crop of Court Reporter Training Project graduates are concerned, Fletcher is optimistic about what the students can accomplish.

“I think this group will be fantastic,” she said. “I’m really proud of the ones who want to go out there and do this.”

Kathy Payne is one of those people. Payne described herself as a good typist with a strong grasp of grammar and an eye for detail. As a result, court reporting had been on her radar for some time. She decided to take action and pursue it once she found out about this course.

“I had been interested in court reporting for several years, but I have four kids,” she said. “I never really took the time to do it because they were all at home and I was busy.”

Then her last son went away to college, and things changed.

“I thought I’ll look into it one more time, and somebody said they’re developing this class, and the timing is perfect,” Payne recalled.

Payne soon began making the two-hour trip from her home in Jackson, Tennessee to Nashville State each week for the classes, which were held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. She was pleased with the material and with Fletcher’s instruction, especially the times when Fletcher would use real-world examples from the courtroom to illustrate certain points.

Overall, the class confirmed what she had suspected. This was a job for her.

Dr. Reginald Gardner is the executive director of workforce development at Nashville State. He worked with Larry Mangrum, Nashville State’s workforce services consultant, and Tracy Kortuem, the workforce development office manager, to successfully implement the Court Reporter Training Project.

Dr. Gardner said that the Court Reporter Training Project was a perfect fit for the Workforce and Community Development department, which is the professional training arm of Nashville State. The department specializes in courses that offer “speed to market,” meaning they quickly put students on the path to a career.

“We want to thank you all for giving us the opportunity to deliver this course,” Dr. Gardner told the attendees at graduation. He reminded students of the wealth of job opportunities that awaited them in the field of court reporting and wished them luck in their future endeavors.

He also expressed a desire for more students to join the court reporting program in the future.

“We are hopeful to have more students enroll in the program and take advantage of this opportunity for an exciting career in court reporting in the criminal justice system here in Tennessee,” he said. “I believe it’s a very good career where people can readily sustain themselves.”

Several Tennessee judges are likewise looking forward to a new crop of court reporters entering the field.

Senior Judge Bill Acree recently met Payne in a courtroom in Jackson. Payne was there with a court reporter who has been mentoring her as she gets started on her new career.

Judge Acree was impressed by her enthusiasm both for court reporting and for the course she had just completed.

“It is wonderful to see people like Kathy who are excited to become a part of Tennessee’s justice system by performing the essential work of court reporting,” he said. “I’d like to congratulate the AOC on its initiative and hard work in putting this training program together and recognizing the critical role that court reporters play.”

Another graduate of the course at Nashville State, Pam Stewart, is already working in the field in the 21st Judicial District.

The following students make up the first graduating class of the Court Reporter Training Project:

Karen Hillman

Olivia Hillman

Karen Kendrick

Melanie McCaleb

Melissa Medling

Kathy Payne

Pamela Stewart

Sharon Vance

Celena Watson