DALLAS JUDGE DECLARES WAR ON COURT REPORTERS

Over recent decades, the nation’s judicial system has undergone sweeping changes. But the court reporter, the man or woman who quietly records every word spoken in the courtroom, has remained one of the system’s constants.

With the advent of a microphone called the PZM condenser flat-top mike, court reporters in Dallas County could become as extinct as dinosaurs. A proposal submitted by Civil District Judge Nathan Hecht calls for an experimental program in two courts for the next six months or so in which all testimony will be recorded by an audio tape system, not by the steady hands of a court stenographer. Although Hecht’s idea seems simple and long overdue, it is destined to be one of the more controversial issues to hit the halls of Dallas County justice in recent years.

Hecht says the current system of documenting testimony is costing the county a little more than $3 million a year. He says that a tape recording system installed in each of the 60 county courtrooms would cut that annual expenditure in half.

“The court reporters are unhappy with the proposal,” Hecht says. “They don’t like it. My response to them has been, ’if you’ll find a better idea, then let’s try it out.’ The potential savings involved here are just too staggering to ignore.”

Dallas County commissioners gave Hecht formal approval for his pilot project last September. He claims it will cost no more than $30,000 to install and operate taping systems in his court and in the criminal court of Judge Ed Kinkeade. “As [Hecht] walks through the fiery furnace, he wants me to hold his hand,” says Kinkeade.

“I’m not real excited about having to make my friends mad, but the project’s worth looking at,” notes Kinkeade. “Most judges have only one or two employees and we’re talking about taking one of them away. That’s a major change. We judges are like lawyers; we’re not very apt to change.”

“New Mexico has recently tested a similar system,” says David Jackson, a freelance court reporter and partner in the Dallas firm of Federal Court Reporters. “They’ve had a lot more problems than they ever thought they would. In fact, only a few weeks ago, a case was thrown out and ordered to be retried because of inaudible and blank tapes.”

Jackson claims there are inherent problems with tape recording systems because, even though someone may be monitoring to see that tapes are running, no one is really accountable for documenting testimony. Court reporters routinely interrupt court testimony when something is spoken too softly or to ask the spelling of a name. When tape-recorded testimony is inaudible, however, it is lost forever.

Hecht claims that on the average, each of the 60 salaried county court reporters makes $42,000 and up, including benefits. The county could hire a clerk to tend to court proceedings and type transcripts from tapes at a cost of roughly $20,000.

Jackson says the county’s court reporters are particularly vulnerable to political pressure from county commissioners, who have “learned to hate our guts” for a practice known as “double-dipping.” Essentially, double-dipping occurs when judges permit their court reporters to hire substitutes to work on trials while they spend time preparing transcripts on a freelance basis for extra money.

Hecht hopes that his pilot project braves the upcoming political storm and is evaluated solely on its merits. “The British have used a tape recording system since 1967,” he says. “I talked with judges and lawyers on a recent visit to London. They can’t understand why others have not done it sooner.”

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