OGDEN -- Not quite yet Luddites, court reporters are still lambasting the state's decision to fire 17 human court reporters last year in favor of automated tape-recording of court hearings.
In a five-year period, 19th-century English textile workers called Luddites gained fame destroying new labor-saving devices in protest of jobs lost. The term is now synonymous with resistance to technological advance.
The National Court Reporters Association has taken offense at Utah court officials' claims that firing all 17 of the state's court reporters last July in a cost-cutting move has actually speeded production of court transcripts.
"While there will be short-term pain for the official court reporters who have lost their jobs, the ultimate victims of Utah's decision to eliminate official reporters' jobs will be the litigants, the judges, and the attorneys who rely on written transcripts to ensure the sanctity of the judicial process," writes the 21,000-member NCRA.
In a letter to Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham and on its Web site, the NCRA calls "ludicrous" and "reckless" claims that transcripts now take, on average, only 16 days to create, compared to 138 days using live court reporters.
Chief Justice Christine Durham used the figures in her State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature in January, and stood by them in a March 23 letter responding to the NCRA ire.
Durham wrote: "Be advised that the information in my address to the Utah Legislature was completely accurate. The efficiencies cited were in the transcript management process and not related to the skills of the court reporters or the time it takes court reporters or transcribers to process transcripts."
The efficiencies, she said, include transferring to an online clearinghouse the process of requesting transcripts that can be managed electronically by one and a half clerks in the Utah Court of Appeals office, instead of court clerks in each of Utah's eight judicial districts.
The NCRA claims the 138 days to 16 figure "is entirely false, yet when it was reported by none other than the chief justice of Utah's Supreme Court, the incorrect statement would seem to carry some level of legitimacy that it most certainly does not deserve."
The NCRA charged that the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts provided the info to Durham "as an easy sound bite without regard to its accuracy to curry favor with legislators and the public."
The NCRA quotes Laurie Shingle, a former court reporter based in Ogden and employed by the state courts, as saying, "I have years' worth of invoices from the 1st and 2nd District Courts that show the actual number of days it took to get a transcript prepared from the time the payment arrangements were made until completion and it is nowhere close to what the AOC is reporting.
"I can remember only three times in the last few years that we needed to ask for an extension beyond 30 days, so only three times in that period did it take us more than 30 days to prepare a transcript." Shingle remains employed in Ogden's 2nd District as in-court clerk, a chief judicial assistant assigned to one of the court's seven judges.
Court reporters have also argued that eliminating their positions would result in gaps in transcripts because a digital audio recording device cannot tell attorneys arguing in court when they've wandered too far from a microphone. Reporters also said they regularly have to interrupt lawyers to caution them against talking over each other, garbling any transcript.
But Dan Becker, director of the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts, said he has heard no complaints from court patrons about the quality of transcripts since the July 1, 2009, date when the court reporters were eliminated. Since that date, his office reports 1,568 transcript requests have been processed, an average of approximately 51 requests per week.
Judges still order court stenographers in some high-profile cases, Becker said, but in the vast majority of cases, contracted transcriptionists type up the transcripts from audiotapes.
"It simply is ludicrous to suggest that a transcript could be created from an audio file more quickly than a stenographic reporter could create from his or her notes," an angry Shingle said.