The decline in the number of students graduating from court-reporting schools is "alarming," according to Peter Wacht, a spokesperson for the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). And though that alarm is national, it is acute in California. Efforts are under way to address a growing shortage in the profession, but for the foreseeable future, California lawyers and courtrooms can expect to rely increasingly on court records taken with imperfect recording technology.
In the 1990s, California was home to 40 reporter-training schools, says David Brown, executive officer of the Court Reporters Board (CRB) of California, a licensing agency. Since then, the number of programs has more than halved. California now licenses fewer than 90 new court reporters annually, compared with 200 to 225 a decade ago. A generational preference for easier careers is partly to blame, Brown says, along with the widely held misconception that recording technology makes court reporters obsolete. If not for the lure of a hefty salary?court reporters can earn into six figures?the shortage would likely be even worse, he adds.
At the same time, the need for skilled transcribers has increased, spurred by legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Federal Telecommunications Act that, for example, require closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Now, many graduates of the two- to four-year court-reporting schools?which train students how to transcribe at least 180 words per minute?have gone into captioning television programs, public meetings, and college lectures rather than taking courtroom positions.
The NCRA is busy promoting the profession to potential students and backing legislation for school grants to provide financial aid. Meanwhile, the CRB has worked to ease state residency restrictions and boost distance learning. But many observers say a courtroom crisis looms, which the widespread use of often inferior audio-recording technology won't be able to alleviate. When witnesses are inaudible or unintelligible, for example, a machine can't ask them to speak up.
"A tape recorder doesn't know what it didn't hear?a reporter does," says Judge Edward Lee, the presiding judge of the Appellate Department in Santa Clara County Superior Court, where some departments have had to rearrange their calendars to work around the reporter shortage. In court, he adds, "we can't wait to find out tomorrow what was missed yesterday."