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Debate heating up over proposed changes to Wisconsin’s court-reporting rules

Debate heating up over proposed changes to Wisconsin’s court-reporting rules

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will be hearing dueling perspectives on Monday on a proposal to spread the use of digital audio recording as an alternative to standard court reporting.

Randy Koschnick, director of state courts, filed a rule-change petition earlier this term calling for, among other things, allowing digital audio recordings to be used as an alternative to stenographic court reporting.

More specifically, Koschnick is proposing that digital audio recording be officially allowed by the court’s rules as a way to make a record. He is also calling for the rules to specify that, at times when a court reporter originally assigned to a particular case isn’t available, chief judges and district court administrators in each of the state’s nine judicial administrative districts should be able to assign another reporter.

The proposal is the culmination of the work of a committee convened in 2017 to deal with the growing shortage of stenographic court reporters in the state. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Monday in the Supreme Court Hearing Room in the state Capitol.

Although Koschnick noted in his memo that the changes are meant to bring the court’s rules in line with current practice, they have met with some resistance.

By Wednesday, three people had registered scheduled to testify in opposition of the proposal. At least five people plan to testify in support.

Also, since the justices put out a notice seeking public comment on Feb. 20, they have received nearly two dozen letters about the proposal, more than half of them from court reporters.

In the main, the court reporters complained of the difficulties they’ve had with digital audio recording. And the Wisconsin Court Reporters Association and its national counterpart, the National Court Reporters Association, weighed in with concerns and suggested changes.

Also, a court reporter who was part of the committee and a past president of the WCRA, Sheri Piontek, submitted a letter opposing the petition, noting that the proposal was formed by a majority vote of the committee and not unanimous agreement.

In contrast, the judges who submitted letters appeared to be split. Judges from Walworth and Chippewa counties wrote letters in opposition to the proposal. But letters of support have come from judges in Barron and Waukesha counties.

Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Maria Lazar noted that although she prefers to use a stenographic reporter, she also could support a blended system, noting that the technology used for digital audio recording has improved.

“When I practiced bankruptcy law in the federal courts, many of those courts used only digital audio reporting,” Lazar wrote. “With one exception, there were no errors or concerns with that manner of reporting. And, that exception was years ago—and systems have improved since that time.”

Other supporters who submitted letters in support of the petition include the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers.

In a rare step, the Wisconsin Association of Justice, which represents plaintiffs lawyers, submitted a letter in opposition to the proposal. According to the association, the proposal could lead to stenographic court reporting being replaced with digital audio recording during trials. Because digital recording leans heavily on stationary microphones, a change of that sort could lead to inaccurate records and limit how advocates and witnesses can move around a courtroom, according to the association.

Also according to WAJ, the committee that worked on the proposal did not solicit opinions from various people who are involved in the system and are content with using stenographic reporters.

“WAJ respectfully submits that before proposing such statewide changes regarding how court proceedings are recorded and transcripts are made, input should have been—and still should be—sought from district attorneys, public defenders, and private practice attorneys who regularly appear in court rooms, elicit testimony and make arguments on their clients’ behalf, and who have to either defend a verdict or court decision on appeal or advocate for reversal,” wrote Ed Robinson, WAJ president. “The opportunity to comment at this stage of the process is not an adequate substitute for front-end input.”

Also on Monday, the justices will be hearing public comments on a proposal to begin a pilot project that would bring mandatory electronic filing to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and Wisconsin Supreme Court. That hearing will start after the justices hear testimony on the court-reporting proposal.

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