Texas court reporter shortage threatens to delay hearings

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- A shortage of court reporters in Texas could spell delays for the more than 3,300 judges and their courtrooms across the state.

Court reporters, or stenographers, are in short supply, according to the Texas Court Reporters Association (TCRA). The lack of qualified record-keepers is "very real." Depositions and hearings may have to be delayed or rescheduled.

"It delays the justice system when there are not court reporters available," freelance court reporter Lorrie Schnoor said. A 27-year veteran, she and her special steno keyboard have documented thousands of judicial proceedings. The keyboard uses a series of keystrokes to write word by word rather than a traditional keyboard's letter by letter process.

"It's really just listening to the words and then processing in our mind, and then writing it on the machine, and doing it in split seconds," she said with a smile. Schnoor joined the "family business," following her sister into court reporter school in Abilene after her dad served on a jury and told her about how it worked.

"I enjoy being part of the system," she said. "I know that's going to help them in their case by providing them a good accurate transcript."

Schnoor is now on the board of the TCRA, working closely with the Texas Office of Court Administration, the entity responsible for certifying stenographers. Administrative director David Slayton said the agency has seen a 20 percent decline in active licensed court reporters since 2005.

"We expect to see that trend continue or perhaps get even worse, and so the question becomes, what do we do? How do we back-fill those positions?" he questioned.

With the requirement of an official record made for all court proceedings, every judge needs a court reporter.

"If there's not a court reporter there, there's no way to take the record, then a court proceeding can't occur," Slayton added.

"Individuals who need justice, whether that's a criminal defendant sitting in jail, a victim who needs resolution , a protective order needs to be issued, a civil case where there's a no contract case," he continued. "No matter what it is, it becomes a real problem when there isn't someone there to take that record."

For TCRA board member Chavela Crain, who has been a stenographer for 32 years and now serves as an official court reporter in Travis County's 53rd Civil District Court, her job security comes with the assertion that there is no way to replace the "human element" in the room.

"We deal with dialects, accents, coughing, sneezing, sirens going by, somebody says they were offered 15,000 for something, and I can say 'Wait, was that 15,000 or 50,000?'" Crain explained. "On an audio (recording) you're not going to be able to tell that, and if somebody's not in the room there is nobody to clarify that."

Lawyers argue the value of an accurate record versus a shift into the digital age.

"You need to have a record that is truthful, that is correct, that is complete, and only court reporters can do that," attorney Patrick Reznik said. "Machines can't do that."

Reznik, who married a court reporter said having a real person in the room reassures him that the official record will be kept accurately, because some attorneys have trouble recalling exact statements they have made, and they will sometimes talk over each other.

State records show there are about 2,200 licensed stenographers in Texas. Crain worries that when she retires, there will not be anyone to take her place.

"So many people that have been doing it for many years like I have are going to be exiting the workforce about the same time, and we need people to fill our spots," she mentioned.

To access more information about court reporting in Texas, click here.

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