April Bloye knew she wanted to be a court reporter the first time she laid eyes on a shorthand machine.
A friend was going to court reporting school and Bloye was intrigued by her stenotype, a specialized keyboard with piano-like keys that spell out whole syllables, words and phrases when pressed at the same time.
“I said, ‘I need to know how this thing works,'” Bloye, 46, recalled recently from her office at the Oklahoma County Courthouse. “I saw the machine and I just knew I had to learn it.”
Court reporters like Bloye, a 20-year veteran, are the eyes and ears of the courtroom, transcribing the spoken word into written form by using machine shorthand to produce official transcripts of court proceedings such as trials and hearings.
“The record provided and prepared by the court reporter lasts forever, and if it ever needs to be reviewed, then the true and accurate facts to what actually occurred are always available,” said Oklahoma County District Judge Ray C. Elliott.
Elliott's court reporter, Beth Weldon, often has to reads lips to make sure she gets the whole story.
During jury selection, dozens of potential jurors are interviewed by attorneys for both sides, which can make recording their comments difficult, especially if the parties are speaking softly.
“They forget that I'm up here on the bench and I really have to know what they're saying and they don't have a microphone,” Weldon, 55, said. “So, sometimes they get pretty low and I have to say ‘I can't hear.'”
Weldon, like Bloye, stumbled into court reporting.
“For me it was the novelty of it,” she said. “I didn't know much about it until I went to court reporting school.”
When Weldon got her first court reporting job in 1981, her machine spit out a paper feed.
“We would actually read from our notes, flap over flap,” she said.
Those notes were put in transcript form via typewriter complete with carbon paper to make copies.
Those days are long gone thanks to computer technology that makes real time transcription possible.
In 1985, Weldon paid $25,000 for her first computerized machine, a printer and software.
“I took out a loan for it,” she said. That was more than a car.”
Today, digital recordings allow judges to instantly play back or review any portion of the recording.
Court reporters, whose base salary is determined by state law, are paid extra for length of service, certifications and transcripts, according to court officials.
The annual base salaries of court reporters in Oklahoma County range from $35,600 to $39,100, records show. Incentives can add as much as $20,000, not including the cost of a court transcript, which pays $3.50 a page.
All pay for their equipment, and can spend between $3,000 and $7,000 to update their software, Weldon said.
How it works
Traditionally, court reporters use stenograph machines that enable them to type at speeds of up to 225 words a minute. The average person usually speaks 160 to 180 words a minute.
“I know some attorneys who speak faster than that,” Bloye joked.
The machines have a syllable-based system of 24 keys that spells words phonetically, the way they sound, rather than how they are actually spelled. Stenographers, commonly known as court reporters, use a keyboard with only 25 keys (there about 100 on a standard computer keyboard) that account for just 13 consonants and vowels.
While court reporters are taught shorthand theory, they create their own keystroke combinations for proper names, words and phrases they're likely to hear during a particular court proceeding whether civil or criminal.
“They give us the basics in court reporting school and we build on that,” said Ken Sharpe, a veteran court reporter. “A lot of it is personalized.”
Marilyn Hodgen is a court reporter with 34 years of experience. Her boss, Oklahoma County District Judge Lisa Davis, presides over mostly civil cases.
“You hear a new story every day,” Hodgen, 54, said. You think you hear them all, but you hear another one.”
With each new story comes a new challenge for a court reporter. Some witnesses mumble. Others have thick accents. Many forget to say yes or no, choosing “uh-huh” instead.
“We're working throughout the whole trial listening to every word that's being said,” Hodgen said. “Someone that's going to speak really fast or a doctor that's going to use really long words, those are challenges.”
Bloye finds herself making the occasional objection in her head from her perch next to Oklahoma County District Judge Jerry Bass, her boss for the past 17 years.
“I'm thinking, ‘I would have asked this question, I would have asked that question,'” she said.
The two have grown close working side by side over the years.
“I've worked for the judge so long I can write his voir dire,” Bloye said. “I write some things before they come out of his mouth.”
Hodgen also began her career reading paper feeds and typing up transcripts on a manual typewriter with two carbon copies.
“We used to have six months to get transcripts out in criminal cases,” she said. Then they moved it to 90 days.”
“Now I write it and it comes out on my computer. Now I'm hooked up to my judge.”
Sharpe, 64, is the senior member of the Oklahoma County court reporting staff. In December, he will celebrate 41 years on the job.
“The faces change, but the cases stay the same,” said Sharpe, who doubles as a freelance photographer.
His first judge, in 1972, was a retired FBI agent named Byron McFall.
“He would tell a lot of stories,” Sharpe said. “He was a lot of fun and everything.”
Since then, Sharpe has worked alongside nearly a dozen different judges and too many court reporters to remember.
“It's an older crowd, you sort of wonder who's going to replace you when you do leave,” he said.
While technology has improved the process, it's doubtful the court reporter is going to be replaced by a machine anytime soon.
“If you want to preserve the record, I think the court reporter, the live reporter, is the only way to go,” Hodgen said.
I saw the machine and I just knew I had to learn it.”
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