If you’re ever in a courtroom, look around. In many jurisdictions, you’ll see someone quickly typing away in front of a strange looking typewriter. This person is a court reporter, also called a stenographer. The device that they are using is called a stenotype, and it’s a highly specialized keyboard that enables them to input text quickly in a special phonetic shorthand. Together, the court reporter and his or her stenotype create the court record in real time, recording each and every word uttered in the courtroom.
But why? Why do we need a real, live person to do this, and why must they do it in real time with such a specialized machine? The truth is, we need court reporters for a wide variety of important reasons. Here are a few.
The court record is key to transparency and fairness
You may ask: why can’t we just record the court proceedings and then transcribe it later, or just not record it at all? Because if we did that, we’d have a much harder time achieving fair outcomes in our courts.
Our human memories are imperfect. At times, judges will ask the court reporter to read back parts of the record. When juries deliberate, they may request parts of the court record to make sure they’re understanding a detail or remembering a moment correctly. Without a court reporter’s careful records to go by, we’d be making a lot more dangerous guesses in important legal situations.
The court record is necessary during court proceedings, but it remains useful afterwards. Court records are vital for appeals courts and for the examination of court precedents. They can also help journalists and news outlets tell stories to the public. The court reporters which create these records help ensure that our judicial system functions in the long term and that it remains under the scrutiny of a free and independent press.
We need court records to be in text
So we’ve established that we need some sort of record of what went on in court, both for the proceedings themselves and for the long-term records that ensure our judicial system’s fairness and transparency. But why does it need to be in text? Couldn’t we just use a tape recorder instead?
Thinking about it for a moment, it should become clear that this wouldn’t be too practical. Judges and juries want to get specific moments from the record to review, and that’s easier to do when the words can be quickly scanned by eye (anyone who has ever tried to rewind a song or a TV show to the exact right spot can testify to this frustration). And text allows records to be easily searchable online and printed in newspapers.
A computer can’t do this work
So we need a record, and we need it to be text. But there are computer programs out there that can convert audio into text, so why don’t we use those? The answer is that frankly, they aren’t good enough, at least not yet.
Court reporters have to make difficult and quick decisions as they transcribe, according to professionals at court reporting companies in Miami. If two people are talking at once, the court reporter must decide if and when to report “crosstalk” instead of each specific word. And there are a lot of words in the English language that sound similar, which is why court reporters use phonetic shorthand and why we need human beings who can make smart decisions about what is being said. Throw in fast talkers, accents, and legal jargon, and you have a tall order for any computer or AI program.
Court reporters are the ones who are up to this task, and they fill a vital role in our judicial system. Their hard work helps ensure fair outcomes and transparency in our legal proceedings.