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Digital court reporters play growing role in courtrooms

Court reporter typing up the court transcript on her laptop computer.

Digital court reporters play growing role in courtrooms

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A surge in stenographer retirements has left a gap in the workforce of court reporters, according to Jon Bellows, district court administrator for the 4th Judicial District in Oshkosh.

To address the issue, digital court reporters are now being used with the Wisconsin Court System creating three hub offices for reporters where they remotely take records in courtrooms across the state.

“Before the digital court recorders were in place, some courts had to cancel or rearrange calendars because there weren’t enough court reporters to capture the official record,” said Bellows. “Now, that has changed and digital court reporters can log in and make sure official records are being taken.”

The idea to create a digital court reporter hub developed in his district during the pandemic. Bellows works out of the hub in Menasha. There are also hubs in Madison and Waukesha.

The hubs allow a digital court recorder in Menasha, for example, to log in and provide assistance at a court in Bayfield County, said Jeff Meverden, department chair for a digital court training reporting program at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.

“We can take care of people throughout the state,” he said.

How digital court recorders work

At a hub, they connect to a county’s server and with the judge via videoconferencing technology. The court reporter receives the case calendar and prepares the recording equipment and software. When court begins, the reporter takes the record by confidence-monitoring the audio recording and creating log notes. While they mostly work out of their hubs, digital court reporters will travel around the state to take records in person for jury trials.

“They work just as stenographers do. They record what is happening as it happens and can read back the record as necessary, converse with the judge — it is just that instead of being in court, they communicate via Zoom,” Bellows said. “Circuit courts need court reporters or else cases do not proceed.”

Judges have a screen where they can see the digital court reporter allowing for effective communication.

Bellows said the training program has helped to avert a crisis.

“It was a real struggle finding court recorders and this is a good solution that will help us keep rolling,” he said. “We now have enough court reporters to make sure cases can move forward.

Educating court reporters

Adding to the increase in court reporter retirements, Wisconsin lost one of its court reporting programs when Madison College ended its program in 2022. Now, Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland is the only program in the state to offer a court recording program.

The shortage in traditional court reporters is a nationwide issue, said Bellows, adding there are only 25 stenography programs in the nation.

Recognizing the need for digital court reporters, Fox Valley Technical College launched a one-year Digital Court Reporter technical degree program in the fall of 2019. The 28-credit course is 100% online and financial-aid eligible. The course covers everything from legal fundamentals and terminology to transcription and digital audio reporting techniques.

FVTC’s Meverden developed the idea for the program after speaking with Bellows and learning about the need for more court reporters. “That’s what we do at technical colleges. We see a need in the business community and then develop a program to train workers to fill that need,” he said.

Since the program is online, students throughout the state, and those throughout the country can sign up. The technical diploma program takes a year to complete with an assignment due every week.

Meverden said each class lasts eight weeks and range from courses focused on the law to those on grammar.

“The classes are flexible so students can fit it in their schedules,” he said. “We teach them how to transcribe, grammar and punctuation so the meaning isn’t lost in what is said.”

He said students enjoy the course and “are definitely getting the jobs.”

While the digital court reporter program was designed for the state court system, Meverden said it can also be used by private court reporter companies. “We know the need is out there,” he said.

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