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Court reporter shortage impacts Quad-Cities courtrooms


Linda Odgen has been a court reporter her entire career.

Despite retiring from her official post in 2014, she still works almost full-time and makes comparable money freelancing due to an ongoing, nationwide court reporter shortages.

“I would say it was not my intention,” to work so frequently as a freelance court reporter, Ogden said. “But, we’re so short-handed … I turn down jobs every day.”

Starting in 1988, she spent the bulk of her career as an official court reporter for Iowa’s 7th Judicial District in Davenport.







Stenotype

Michelle Stroehle, 39, of Davenport, shows off her stenotype machine’s screensaver — her two children — while meeting with Quad-City Times reporters at 392 Cafe in downtown Davenport on Thursday, May 9, 2024. S



Olivia Allen



“Before my official retirement, some of the attorneys that I worked with as an official let me know they were having difficulties finding available freelance court reporters,” Odgen said. 

Court reporters take the official transcription of court proceedings. Freelance court reporters are independent contractors hired by attorneys, which gives them more control over their schedules, Odgen said. The state-employed court reporters, though, have state-backed benefits.

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No matter which pathway a court reporter chooses, they’re almost guaranteed a job — likely, right away.

‘Somewhat akin to the Titanic’

Scott County Attorney Kelly Cunningham said her attorneys periodically struggle to find available court reporters.

“They just don’t have enough court reporters to go around,” she said.







01032322-qc-nws-cunningham-02.jpg

Kelly Cunningham, Scott County Attorney, poses for a portrait, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Davenport.




Iowa’s 7th Judicial District, covering Cedar, Clinton, Jackson, Muscatine and Scott counties, currently has six of its 17 total court reporter positions vacant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job openings for court reporters to average roughly 2,100, each year, until 2032.

Local officials point to a likely combination of factors behind the shortage of these vital workers, such as past perceptions about technology replacing court reporters. 

“The pursuit of justice requires 100% accuracy,” said Chief Judge Clarence Darrow of Illinois’ 14th Judicial Circuit, which covers Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Whiteside counties.

Illinois’ 14th Judicial Circuit is only short by two court reporters, but the state’s workforce is nearing what he calls “somewhat akin to the Titanic.”

“There’s that iceberg in the distance, and we’re doing all we can to (avoid) running into it,” Darrow said, noting most Illinois court reporters are more than 55 years old.







Chief Judge Clarence Darrow,

Headshot of Chief Judge Clarence Darrow, Illinois’ 14th Judicial Circuit, via LinkedIn. 




To avoid the iceberg, Illinois’ 14th Judicial District has upped its recruiting efforts via community outreach such as career fairs, organizational partnerships and lobbying.

“Just getting the word out that, ‘Hey, you can go to school for two years and become a certified court reporter,’” said Rebecca Todd, court reporting services supervisor.

‘Basically guaranteed a job’

Todd and Odgen helped facilitate the launch of Black Hawk College’s Court Reporting Technology program in the fall of 2022, and both teach courses there now. Students in the program graduate with an associate’s degree and complete a supervised internship while learning the ins and outs of live court reporting, such as using a stenotype machine.

“We’ve got eight people in the program, and we’re hoping for a slew to join the program in the fall,” Todd said.

On Thursday, Michelle Stroehle will become the first to graduate from the program.

“I just thought it seemed like a good fit for me,” she said, later noting she plans to start working at the Scott County Courthouse within weeks. “And, the fact that court reporters are very important. You don’t really see or hear a lot from them during a hearing, but they’re very crucial to the whole process.”

Jury duty is what initially drew Stroehle into the field.

“I was just mesmerized by the court reporter,” she said. “I found myself watching her very closely and became interested in doing some research.”







Michelle Stroehle

Michelle Stroehle, 39, of Davenport, poses with her stenotype machine while meeting with Quad-City Times reporters at 392 Cafe in downtown Davenport on Thursday, May 9, 2024. She will be the first to graduate from Black Hawk College’s Court Reporting Technology program. 



Olivia Allen



Stroehle and her husband formerly owned Riverbend Retro, a vintage furniture and decor store in downtown Davenport, which they had closed before having their second child in 2019. She was a stay-at-home mom in the following years. During that time, she was also summoned to her first jury duty.

During her research, Stroehle said Des Moines Area Community Colleges was the only school in Iowa to offer a court reporting program. Luckily, she later heard about Black Hawk’s program.

“So, I waited until 2022 and got my foot in the door right away,” Stroehle said. “One really great thing about (court reporting) is that it’s in such high demand — you’re basically guaranteed a job.”

Building the necessary skills for busy courtrooms

The National Registered Professional Reporter exam is the only nationwide, industry-recognized certification designed for entry-level freelance and official court reporters.

Roughly 75% of court reporters hold a certificate, and just over 10% have an associate’s degree. While requirements vary by state, Illinois applicants must also pass the Illinois Certified Shorthand Reporter exam — which includes a 255 words-per-minute dictation exam — and those in Iowa must pass, at least, the Iowa Certified Shorthand Reporter exam’s written portion, which requires proficiency of 200 words-per-minute.

The median salary for court reporters is $70,634 nationwide, with starting salaries just under $37,300. Federal court reporters can make up to six figures.

“I would say the minimum salary of a freelance court reporter would be very similar to the official,” Ogden said. “I know freelance court reporters (who) are making $150,000 a year. Now, they’re working a lot, but they are making $150,000.”

For those who are shocked by how much court reporters make despite few holding an official college degree, Ogden often points to the profession’s high-difficulty skillset and testing requirements.

“Court reporting is probably one of the few careers in the world where 94.9% is a failing grade,” she said. “When you become a court reporter, the lowest grade you can receive for certification is 95%.”

At Black Hawk, students must score a 97% on an in-class test.







Michelle Stroehle

Michelle Stroehle, 39, of Davenport, demos her stenotype machine while meeting with Quad-City Times reporters at 392 Cafe in downtown Davenport on Thursday, May 9, 2024. 



Olivia Allen



“…In the hope that, when (students) go through (state) certifications, they’re a little bit more relaxed because they’ve already done it and 97%,” Ogden said. “It’s very hard to pass that test, which it should be.”

Court reporting a whole different language

Unlike a typical computer keyboard containing 104 keys, a stenotype machine only has 22. Sounds, words and certain court phrases are made using a combination of unique keystrokes.

“It’s basically (learning) a whole different language,” Stroehle said. “Entire phrases can be written with just one stroke, so it’s like muscle memory … Our teacher would sometimes read us children’s books (to transcribe), and it was a nice way to practice.”

She said students heard more real-life case examples as they became more accustomed to using a stenotype and familiar with common court terminology.

Due to the stakes, Odgen said certification for court reporters is highly difficult for a reason — if someone is sentenced to life in prison or loses parental rights, for example, court transcripts should be “darn near perfect.”

Other officials agree. Darrow noted how common technologies such as voice-to-text often prove the “irreplaceable benefit” court reporters provide.

“Every day in court, we deal with real people’s lives in significant ways … Anybody using a smartphone has experienced (how) dictation isn’t taken accurately many, many times,” he said, extending concerns to growing AI capabilities.

Similarly, Ogden said she can tell “almost immediately” when courts use voice-to-text software for their recordings based on the quality.

When cases get chaotic — such as parties talking over each other or shouting — Darrow said live court reporters can make the information distinguishable.

“AI or (computers) can’t do anything but record,” he said.

Moving forward

Cunningham and Odgen both recall a push toward replacing court reporters with transcription technology in the Quad-Cities area around 2009.

“Of course, we were very concerned about that because we knew it would be an issue,” Cunningham said, noting Iowa’s Court Reporters Association fought hard against the change at the time.

While she and others agree this may have spurred initial shortages, a lack of accessible programming and public knowledge on court reporting careers are likely contributors.

“As a prosecutor, I would encourage young people to go into the field. It’s a very interesting field and, quite honestly, (it) pays well,” Cunningham said, noting court reporters can earn additional money by preparing transcripts.

To her, court reporting helps to develop both historical and global perspectives.

“We’re dealing with human behavior in so many different areas,” Cunningham said. “Whether it be criminal (family, civil, etc.) law … I think (that) makes it a very, very satisfying career path.”

Iowa Judicial Branch spokesman Steve Davis said the Supreme Court recently authorized certified voice court reporters to obtain certification in Iowa, allowing Iowa courts to recruit transitioning military voice reporters.

“While it certainly does not solve our shortage, it does give us a little bit larger pool of potential reporters to recruit from,” he said. “We are working to find options to help in the retention of our current court reporters.”

On the Illinois side, Darrow thinks judicial districts are “turning a corner” in promoting court reporting careers, especially as more high school graduates opt out of traditional, four-year degree paths.

This summer, Black Hawk will offer a three-hour, introductory court reporting class on June 15 and July 27.

“We’ll discuss what court reporting is and the different professions you can go into as a court reporter,” Todd said. “Schooling involved, salary and benefits, additional income from transcripts, and we’ll offer a free (lesson) on an actual steno machine.”

Computer-aided real-time transcriptionists (CARTS), who transcribe spoken content for individuals who are deaf, and live broadcast captioning are other applicable careers for court reporters.

“We’re trying to replenish the working group of court reporters … and hopefully dispel some (misconceptions) about the profession,” Darrow said. “It’s a great profession, it’s in high demand and it has a bright future.”

After graduation, Stroehle plans to work in court reporting until retirement. She hopes to work at the federal level one day.

“I’ve never had a true career like this, so I’m really excited,” she said. “And, getting to have good benefits for my family and a retirement plan.”

Stroehle called the local court reporting community, “like no other.”

“They’re all very encouraging and helpful, and they want to get more people into this field,” she said. “Anytime I reached out to any of them with questions, they were more than happy to help me.”

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has decreased 8% since 2019. However, it’s not due to a lack of a learning desire among students, it’s instead a way to avoid the sometimes massive amounts of college debt that could be waiting for them down the road.The number of kids enrolling in college is down, but the number of kids enrolling in trade programs is up. Mechanics saw enrollment increase by 11.5% since 2019. Other programs like construction have seen increases as high as 19.5%. Students say it’s because they are enjoying the hands-on learning approach of what these programs offer them.”I’ve always been more of a hands-on learner and with welding everything is hands on. You’re always doing something. It starts with getting certified through high school. And coming in another two months I’ll take a certification test. Get that and hopefully enroll in a CSCT as soon as possible,” said Noah Hernandez, a student. Companies are getting on board with this trend as well. Just last week, on Thursday, Walmart announced it is cutting back the number of degrees it offers workers, instead they are offering workers a chance at earning trade certificates. The company announced it hopes to hire 100,000 new workers through this method over the next three years.According to Georgetown University, students who work in the workforce but do not get a four-year college degree can earn up to 75% less than their college graduate counterparts, but students say the savings that they are not getting by not having student debt outweighs the disparity in pay.SEE MORE: Biden administration announces $1.2 billion in new student debt relief





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