US courtrooms running on shorthand writer vapours

There’s a silent problem facing the US judicial system – a dire shortage of qualified stenographers.

The Wall Street Journal has revealed how a lack of stenographers has forced some courts either to delay legal proceedings to ask people to work extra shifts. Many proceedings can’t legally go forward without the presence of court reporters, who attend depositions, hearings and trials and create word-for-word transcripts that serve as an official and complete record, the newspaper reports.

Three years ago, 17,700 people worked as court reporters in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of May 2018, that number was around 14,500, an 18% drop.

“There is a severe shortage and it’s rough,” said Nancy Varallo, who owns a Massachusetts-based court reporting firm, told the WSJ. She said her firm turns down about five assignments a day because there aren’t enough reporters for the jobs.

Court reporters are the “silent people” in the courtroom, said Max Curry, the president-elect of the National Court Reporters Association.

Court reporters use stenotype machines to capture courtroom dialogue in shorthand, a form of writing that can be typed more quickly and uses phonetic spellings rather than exact spellings to create words. Most modern stenotype machines translate shorthand to words in real time.

As longtime court reporters retire, new reporters aren’t stepping in to take over, said Toby Feldman, who owns a court-reporter agency based in Manhattan. People are simply unaware the career exists, some say.

The median salary for a court reporter is about $57,000, according to BLS. Some can earn more than $100,000, depending on their experience.

For people who do enroll in schools to become court reporters, the dropout rate hovers around 80% to 85% due to its difficulty, Mr. Curry said.

California and Texas are two of the states with the largest shortages. They are also the states with the most difficult certification tests, said Mr. Curry. In March, only six of the 111 students who took the California certification exam passed.

A few months ago, when court reporter Shari Krieger, 48 years old, got sick, she called several firms to find a replacement. When no one was available, the judge had to reschedule the entire day. “Everybody was there ready to go,” said Ms. Krieger, who works in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. “To know that nothing can happen without you—that’s a big responsibility.”

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