A pilot program aimed at replacing courtroom stenographers with video cameras and voice-activated recorders has proven so successful that four new systems will be installed in the new year, Orange County Superior Court officials said.
The expansion will bring to seven the number of Superior Courts equipped with the state-of-the-art video technology hailed by many as cost-effective, efficient and able to capture nuances that cannot be recorded by traditional court reporting.
The video systems will not displace any court reporters on permanent assignment with the court, but many stenographers still oppose the new equipment and fear they may become courtroom relics. They also question the reliability of the new technology.
"I think this is a mistake because no video can ever take the place of a human being," said Bob Sullivan, a stenographer and president of the Orange County Court Reporters' Assn. "Reporters are highly skilled and do a better, quicker, more accurate job than a videotape."
The video systems use cameras and microphones to record courtroom activity on a videotape. It was first introduced in the state about two years ago, and is being used on an experimental basis by many court systems across the country. In Kentucky, it has replaced most court stenographers.
At a cost of about $60,000 each, one such system roughly equals the annual salary of a court reporter, but will ultimately save money, said Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald E. Smallwood.
There is no more waiting for a court reporter to arrive, no requesting a court reporter to work late or start early, and reviewing testimony is just a rewind button away, supporters say.
"The biggest advantage for me is that I can go back and review the videotape. I don't have to keep a reporter working late to read back the transcript," said Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Eleanor Palk. "It's great."
Attorneys can request copies in video form, or must pay a stenographer to type a written transcript. Traditional court reporters must also transcribe their work for the court and attorneys.
The men and women who seemingly type faster than the judge, attorneys and witnesses can speak are often overshadowed by their counterparts in the courtroom.
Yet the reporters create the official court record. An appeal from a conviction relies on the stenographer's record and can succeed--or fail--if a mistake has been made.
While supporters of the new technology say it is this need for absolute accuracy that requires advanced equipment like videotapes and monitors, court reporters say that machines are no match for humans.
Smallwood said an additional advantage is the ability of video to capture subtleties, such as a sarcastic response or a witness's physical reaction--elements not reflected by a court reporter's record.
Yet problems can crop up. Testimony can be mistakenly erased or a judge could forget to activate the system. Testimony can be inaudible. In 1989 in Kentucky, a man won the right to a new trial on manslaughter charges after it was discovered that the videotape ran out during his testimony.
These are the pitfalls that stenographers like Sullivan point to as evidence that machines will never completely take over the need for court reporters. At least, he hopes not.
"I don't mind saying I'm concerned about our future," he said. "We know that most people look at what we do and say: 'Why not use a tape recorder?' "
"But we're not dinosaurs yet. There are things a machine just can't do," said Sullivan, explaining that court reporters can interrupt when too many parties are talking, or a witness's testimony is not quite clear.
Flipping through a transcribed document is also easier to mark for future reference than fast-forwarding through a tape, he said.
The appellate courts seem to agree. The court will only accept for review videotaped proceedings that run less than one hour. Anything longer must be transcribed, officials said.
Smallwood said he does not want to see court reporters out of a job because of the equipment, but said he also has an obligation to pursue efforts to improve court services.
"No one wants to see court reporters displaced--that's not our goal," he said. "I understand their concerns, but we're not moving this into every courtroom."
Sullivan and other court reporters say they are not against all technology entering the courtroom, and deny that they are only opposed to the video system because it could threaten their livelihood.
Sullivan said new equipment will help improve court services and said he would like to see courtrooms equipped with a system allowing for immediate transcripts of court proceedings on monitors placed before the judge and attorneys.
Such a system, still experimental, is being used in only one Orange County Superior Court, Sullivan said.
"I think ultimately, you should have a system that utilizes all the technology, video and computers--but also stenographers," he said.