DECATUR — Court reporter Jade Ledbetter walked into a Macon County circuit courtroom 1 in early July. Wearing a black blazer and skirt and armed with her stenotype machine, the 22-year-old approached a seat placed to the left of the judge’s bench, smiling and conversing pleasantly with the courtroom’s security guards.
For those sitting in the courtroom July 10, Circuit Judge Hugh Finson and the attorneys were the ones with big jobs to do as preliminary hearings, which are proceedings held after a criminal complaint has been filed by a prosecutor to determine whether there is enough evidence to require a trial, were conducted.
But tucked away near the witness stand, Ledbetter, an official court reporter, faced a tremendous task, as well: Typing every word that was spoken in court.
“It’s tough,” said Joyce Galla, who’s worked as a court reporter in Macon County for 33 years.
Presiding Judge A.G. Webber IV agreed. “Every word said and everything done in court has a record that’s open to people at large,” which makes what court reporters do critical, he said.
With such an important job comes some challenges, said Leona Miller, one of 10 court reporters at the Macon County Courts Facility.
“It can be really hard (to get every word down) if more than one person is talking at the same time,” Miller said. “Juvenile cases can also be hard to cover due to the subject matter.”
Becoming an official court reporter can be a challenge in itself. Reporters usually attend school for two to three years, during which time they become accustomed to using a 22- to 25-key stenotype machine to record what’s going on in the courtroom.
“In the first six months of class, you learn the home row and theory (which helps them type and read stenotype),” Kelly Geisler, supervisor of court reporting services, said. “From there, you usually work on building your speed.”
To become certified by the state, court reporters must be able to take down testimony at 225 words per minute with a greater than 95 percent accuracy rate.
Additionally, court reporters must also purchase their own stenotype machine and software.
“For my machine and software, it was about $10,000,” said Ledbetter of her Stenograph Diamante, an advanced stenotype machine that translates stenotype, or shorthand, to English and uses an SD card or USB drive to store all of the reporter’s work.
Unlike a normal alpha-numeric keyboard that a computer or typewriter uses, a stenotype machine uses a keyboard that does not include every letter. This requires a reporter to use different key combinations for the missing letters, which means the normal “ABC” on a typewriter would end up looking like “A PW K R” on a stenotype machine, with the “PW” standing for the letter “B” and “K R” standing for the letter “C.”
Court reporters also adopt their own unique system of abbreviations that can help them take down testimony and proceedings.
“I have different strokes to denote when the prosecution, judge or defense is speaking,” Miller said. “I can also add words to the dictionary on my computer” to help with trials or testimony involving medical terminology or jargon.
While it can sometimes be difficult to just type what is being said without trying to comprehend it, the reporters acknowledged they often do the best job when they simply let their fingers do all the work.
“I think your best notes are when you’re not paying attention,” Galla said. “It goes from my ears to fingers, and you just don’t think about it.”
With court reporting evolving over the years, transitioning from reporters using pens and shorthand or machines that printed out a paper copy of the shorthand reporters typed, to advanced stenotype machines, training has also changed. In years past, most court reporters in Macon County received their training at Sparks College in Shelbyville, but Ledbetter, who began working as a court reporter in October, turned to online courses instead.
“I did theory through the College of Court Reporting by meeting for virtual classrooms once a week and I did speed building once a day,” she said, noting that each class was about 50 minutes long. “My school was really supportive. I had a mentor to speak with, and she told me that if I could get through the online court reporting program, I would make a good court reporter.”
“It takes a lot of practicing or you won’t make it,” said Christina Lynch, who began reporting eight years ago. “You have to be committed, and it takes a lot of time and determination.”
Ledbetter said she began thinking about a career in court reporting while she was in high school.
“I was fast at keyboarding, so my teacher suggested it to me,” she said.
Miller, who’s been a Macon County court reporter for 36 years, giving her one of the longest reporting tenures at the courts facility, said she got into court reporting by chance.
“Someone came to talk to my sister about court reporting and my mom thought I’d be better at it than my sister,” she said, laughing. “It’s something I think I’ve been good at.”
Gina Jones, who has been a court reporter since 1992, said she waited until after having her children to pursue a reporting career.
“My grandpa wanted me to be a court reporter,” she said, “but I became a mother first and then started doing court reporting at 25.”
Whether covering a murder trial, a civil case or adoption proceedings, the reporters said they enjoy the variety their job offers.
“It’s never boring and every day is different,” Lynch said, “but it can be hard, especially during a jury trial, because you have to sit for a long period of time and you could end up typing about 200 pages of notes a day, so your mind has to take in all of those words.”
The job can become even more challenging if a court case is sent to the appellate court for appeal.
“If a case is going to be appealed, you have to complete an entire transcript of the jury trial,” Lynch said, “and you only have so many days to complete it, plus continue to do your daily assignments.”
In spite of the challenges the job may offer, court reporters say they truly enjoy what they do.
“It’s a great job for single mothers and there is a big salary range that depends on experience,” she said. “You can also do your schooling at home.”
“It’s the most challenging, exciting and rewarding job,” Lynch said, “and we want to really encourage people to do this because I don’t think a lot of people know about it. There will be a lot of court reporters retiring soon, too, so we’ll need new people to do this.”
“We know what people say (in court),” Ledbetter said, “and it’s our transcript that’s the last word. What we produce could determine prison time or if someone is guilty or not guilty, so it’s a very important job.”
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