LUMBERTON — Judicial officials in Robeson County say a recommendation by the state’s Administrative Office of Courts to replace North Carolina’s court reporters with digital recorders would result in less accurate court transcripts and greater cost to taxpayers because of retrials.
“I’m definitely not opposed to supplementing court reporters with digital recorders,” said Robert F. Floyd Jr., Robeson County’s senior resident Superior Court judge. “But I don’t think digital recorders are ready to replace live people at this time.”
The study was done by the National Center for State Courts.
Although digital recorders are being used in Robeson and other counties for most District Court proceedings, a report issued by the state’s Administrative Office of Courts earlier this month calls for the recorders to be used more often in Superior Court, the site of more serious civil and criminal court proceedings.
The move to just digital recording threatens the jobs of the state’s approximately 100 court reporters, including two in Robeson County.
The Administrative Office of Courts, which runs the court system, made a study of the need and compensation of court reporters after the study was requested by the state General Assembly last year. The state Senate previously attempted to reduce the state’s budget by reducing the state’s staff of 100 reporters in half. The estimated $2 million in savings would then be used to hire private reporters as needed and install the digital recording equipment in courtrooms, according to the Senate plan.
According to The News and Observer of Raleigh, John Smith, director of the Administrative Office of Courts, said his agency is not recommending the elimination of live court reporters. Instead, according to the newspaper, Smith said there needs to be a “gradual transition to an appropriate mix,” meaning the use of live reporters in complex cases and digital recordings in routine matters.
Robeson County judges, court reporters, the district attorney, the public defender and others representing the local courts met recently with state Sen. Michael Walters and state Rep. Charles Graham, both of Robeson County, and James L. Boles Jr., of Moore County, to air their concerns. Boles is co-chairman of the House Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee, while Graham is a member of the committee.
“I believe that the court reporter system that we have in place now works,” Graham said. “It is efficient, effective, gives accurate information and is reliable.”
Walters also raised concerns about the recommendation.
“After hearing all of the information from the (judicial) departments, I’m not leaning toward it,” Walters said. ” I don’t think it’s the prudent way to go.”
Walters said he is concerned about accuracy.
“If there has to be a retrial because of a no good transcript that will put the victim’s family through a horrible situation again,” he said. “I don’t think we need to do that. That’s a heck of an expense, not only for the victim’s family but for the state.”
Both Floyd and J.Stanley Carmical, Robeson County’s chief District Court judge, said that there has to be an “understanding of the function” of court reporters to recognize their importance to the court system.
“A court reporter does more than just run a machine. It is our check and balance,” Floyd said.
Floyd said that court reporters often interrupt trials to tell lawyers not to talk over each other or remind witnesses to speak up or ask judges to repeat something.
“These are highly trained people,” Carmical said.
District Attorney Johnson Britt said that digital recordings are far less accurate then the personal observations and records kept by court reporters. He said that inaccurate transcripts, or transcripts lacking information, can lead to appeals and retrials that are extremely costly.
“In the long run, doing away with court reporters is going to cause more problems than it solves,” Britt said. “This is all about the need for getting information right the first time and doing justice.”
Gayla Biggs, an assistant public defender and the current president of the Robeson County Bar Association, said that Angus Thompson, the county’s public defender, is “in total opposition” to the elimination of live court reporters.
“The use of just digital recordings for court proceedings is not accurate, efficient or cost-wise,” Biggs said.
Sherri Sealey, a Robeson County court reporter, said the starting salary of a court reporter is about $39,000 to $45,000. Few of the states approximately 100 staff court reporters are making much above the average salary of somewhere in the $50,000 range, she said.
“We’re not only taking down the record. We’re identifying in narrative form everything that happens,” she said. “We are credentialed professionals. We have to get continued education certification … We’re trained to understand language and know what to take down as part of the record.”
Sealey said she thinks the court reporter system in North Carolina should remain as it is currently structured.
“If it is not broken, I don’t think we need to fix it,” she said. “What we do is an important job in the interest of justice in North Carolina.”
According to The News and Observer, the replacement of live court reporters with recording equipment has been successful in some states and unsuccessful in others. In Kentucky, which went to video recording of trials 30 years ago after a stenographers’ strike, a judge had to rehear an entire murder trial in 2010 after the digital recorder broke down. On the other hand, Utah went digital in 2009 and reportedly saved $1.3 million by cutting 50 jobs. It also cut the average number of days of receiving a trial transcript from 138 to 12, the newspaper said.
Both Walters and Graham said that they do not think the General Assembly will act on any recommendation to eliminate court reporters during the General Assembly’s short session, which convenes in May.