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Western Pennsylvania feels shortage of court reporters

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:49 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Shauna Haley, of Bulger, Washington County, practices on her stenograph machines during a court reporting class at the Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side, Wednesday, November 6, 2013.

It was the stuff of television dramas — the iconic, fast-typing, uber-focused court stenographer, sitting just steps from the judge, the jury, the attorneys and the defendant, carefully typing every word spoken during a trial.

For Barbara Lightcap, who first set foot in a courtroom in the mid-1970s, real life mimicked those dramas as she sat at the center of it all, typing softly on a three-legged stenographic machine.

Back then, court stenography, also known as court reporting, was booming.

Classes were filled with students learning the trade that requires pinpoint accuracy, lightning-fast typing skills — a minimum of 225 words a minute — and the ability to stay sharp during hours of tedious, often technical testimony.

But today, officials everywhere are struggling to find enough reporters to keep their courtrooms staffed.

Recently in South Carolina, court was canceled for two days because no reporters were available.

The pinch is being felt in Western Pennsylvania, where court administrators say they've had positions unfilled for months.

“It's gotten increasingly worse,” said Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell-Seneca, who has five reporters to handle the work of four judges. When she was elected to the bench 22 years ago, there were nine court reporters, she said.

Most experts attribute the shortage to:

• Court-reporting schools throughout the nation have closed because of waning interest. Two remain in Pennsylvania — one at the Community College of Allegheny County and one in the Philadelphia area.

• Trained reporters are drawn to more lucrative jobs in television closed-captioning and other voice-to-text services for the hearing impaired.

• Some say the job does not pay enough. The median income for court reporters was $47,700 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although some can earn into the six figures doing freelance work.

• Like the recently retired Lightcap, 60, of Greensburg, many of the nation's 22,000 court stenographers are ending their careers.

In Westmoreland County, assistant court administrator Tami Silvis said she's had one position open since summer.

Fayette County officials have difficulty recruiting court reporters in part because of the low starting salary — $27,000 a year, said court administrator Karen Kuhn.

To guard against delays, Washington County purchased a digital recording system, following the lead of other counties, including Beaver and Allegheny, where officials say the systems have worked well, helping them avoid a staffing crunch.

Courts nationwide have realized significant savings from using recorders.

One report from the New Jersey courts puts the cost of operating a digital system at about $5,000 a year versus $50,000 to $60,000 to pay a court stenographer.

But the switch to digital recordings — made with everything from basic tape recorders to cutting-edge, multiple-camera systems — has not been without controversy.

Officials from the National Court Reporters Association say video or audio recordings are no replacement for a human.

Electronic recordings have been unreliable, they say, citing a 2010 Kentucky case in which a judge was forced to rehear a murder trial because a digital recorder failed.

To date, O'Dell-Seneca said there have been no problems with Washington County's system.

The best solution to ending the shortage is educating the public, said Adam Finkel, assistant director of government relations for the court reporters association.

“You know, honestly, I think a lot of people don't know about that as a viable career option,” Finkel said.

But officials warn that court-reporting training is rigorous. Nationally, only 13 percent of students who start a program actually finish.

Rick Auman, 45, of Latrobe, who attended Westmoreland County Community College's program before it closed in 1989, said that out of 17 students, only he and another student graduated.

Some liken court reporting to playing a piano.

The stenotype machine used by court reporters has 23 keys, each representing a phonetic sound. The keys can be pressed individually or together to type those sounds into a coded format, which is then translated by a computer program into words.

Officials see hope in the 50 students enrolled in the court reporting program at the Community College of Allegheny County, the largest class in years, program coordinator Mary Beth Davis said.

CCAC student Brooklyn Davis, 22, of New Castle learned about the profession while attending Kent State University, where she took notes for hearing-impaired students.

“I wish in high school I had known this was a career,” she said.

Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or kwilcox@tribweb.com.

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