A DAY IN THE LIFE — Court reporter
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We’ve all seen the quiet, unassuming person seated near the judge at the front of a court room, either in person or on television – furiously typing away – as people argue, debate, answer questions and sometimes plea for leniency. Nerves of steel and focus are required in striking the stenotype keyboard. People talk over one another. Someone mumbles a reply. These and more are facets of Tonya Gerke’s role as an award-winning court reporter.
She is employed by the State of Iowa as an official reporter for District Court Judge Bethany Currie. She and Currie travel around the Second Judicial District (2B) in 10, 5-week increments, currently working in Marshalltown out of the Max Building. Gerke has been a court reporter since 1988 and is a native of State Center.
“I went to AIB (now defunct) originally to be a legal secretary, and when I did the testing and all the admissions process, one of the counselors got ahold of me and said ‘hey you should try court reporting,'” Gerke said. “I thought that machine was so unusual, but I tried it and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. We have a shortage right now, and it’s imperative that we get people interested enough to explore our profession and go to school for it.”
To become certified she had to pass three five-minute typing tests with 96 percent accuracy.
“When AIB closed, DMACC’s Newton campus took over the program,” she said. “It’s now the only one in the state of Iowa.”
The tests require students to type 225 words per minute testimony (two-voice); 200 words per minute jury charge; and 180 words per minute literary, as well as complete at least 40 verified hours of actual writing time during an internship and submit 40 pages of transcript and a written narrative. Not surprisingly, the drop out rate is high. According to DMACC, the starting salary of a court reporter is $50,000 a year.
Speed and accuracy are the cardinal rules of the profession.
A degree in court reporting doesn’t confine the graduate to a career in the legal field. One may pursue work doing captioning for news programs or sporting events (live or pre-recorded). Some listen in on college lectures, typing notes that are sent directly to hearing-impaired students’ laptops. Gerke has even transcribed sermons for churchgoers.
“The Americans With Disabilities Act (passed by Congress in 1990) was huge for our career because all live programming has to be captioned,” she said.
Just out of college, with help from her father, Gerke purchased her first steno machine with a price tag of $15,000. For 13 years, she worked as a freelancer, which gave her the flexibility to set her own schedule while having young children at home. She got some experience under her belt working at a firm in Cedar Rapids before returning to State Center. Taking depositions and delivering them to the court was her bread and butter in the early years. In 2005, she decided to become an official reporter. She has worked with Judge Carl Baker and Judge James Ellefson, and more recently, Judge Currie.
“A perk of (being salaried) is the income and the collegiality of the people. I was pretty solitary as a freelancer,” Gerke said.
Mondays are court service days with a hearing held every half hour. Tuesdays may involve a jury trial – her favorite experience.
“I get to see the whole story – the drama play out right before me – and that might last all week,” she said.
Wednesdays and Thursdays are made up of court hearings, and Fridays tend to be the day the judge devotes to writing.
“I provide her clerical support that day, or I’ll be reassigned to a different judge,” Gerke said. “The other half of my job is scheduling for the court system.”
While digital recording devices have been available for years – and utilized in some courtrooms outside of Iowa – Gerke said nothing compares to the accuracy afforded by a human being.
“Digital audio recording is always out there. But we (court reporters) are the gold standard. The person in the room is better than a machine,” she said.
Outside noise pollution, people speaking over each other or mumbling answers, and mechanical malfunction, can spoil a transcript.
“If I didn’t hear something clearly, I speak up and have people stop talking,” she said.
Each court reporter owns his or her equipment. Gerke’s current steno machine cost $5,000. She connects it to her laptop, thereby generating realtime transcriptions.
“We work well together. It’s a team sport and I use her as a valuable resource,” Judge Currie said.
A standard steno machine has 22 keys that are used to key out coded numbers, phrases, words and sounds. Unlike a computer’s keyboard, stenotype does not have a key for every letter of the alphabet.
“How we unlock the mystery of stenotype is the left side of the keyboard is where the beginning sound of your word starts, the right side is the ending sound. The vowels are on the bottom of the keyboard,” she said. “Speed comes from hitting the keys like making a chord on a piano.”
As the keyboard is phonetically-based, the word cat is spelled as kat. The letter M is created by striking the letters P and H at the same time. As there is no I on the keyboard, typing EU makes that letter.
“When I hear an M-word I know it starts with PH, and I think that automatically,” she said. “It’s like being at a stop light and you see a red light and you know it means stop without having to think about it.”
An American shorthand machine was patented in 1879 by Miles M. Bartholomew. However, even in the 1980s and 90s some court reporters could be found transcribing court proceedings using a pen and pad. Now digitized, older models of steno machines shot out transcribed material in paper form. Even when a judge asks the jury to “strike the record” every single word uttered remains in the transcript.
Because of the stylized nature, the text is not understandable by a non-court reporter. Before submitting the transcript, which she must certify as accurate to the best of her ability, she must go in and edit the text to conform to the English language.
“When I type the world Mat with a PH for the M, it is going to be recorded (as Phat),” she said. “I have 44,000 entries in my database … If I’m captioning a church service, Biblical words need to be in my dictionary. If I captioned a skating event for the Olympics, for example, I would need to know what happened the day before, the names of the competitors, the countries they’re from, famous people that could be referenced, etc.”
Some court reporters bring in a side income by preparing booklets or trial transcriptions for the appeals process.
“That’s my nights and weekends job,” Gerke said.
While outbursts of human emotion in the courtroom have remained consistent through the centuries, Gerke said the way in which people converse has evolved.
“In our culture people are talking faster, we’re multi-tasking, and the technology we have is just making our brains fire,” she said.
It isn’t unusual for Gerke to push her machine to type over 300 words per minute.
Gerke said those interested in the field of court reporting may contact her to set up a job shadow by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or email@example.com