Kayla Maruska isn't complaining, but she can't wait until another court reporter comes along who's younger than she is. Colleagues have been calling her "baby" because, at 29 and about to have her first child, she's the youngest in Rapid City when half of the people in her profession are over 50.
Maruska works for South Dakota’s 7th Judicial Circuit, a job that involves using a stenograph machine to take down word for word what is said in court. There are eight other official court reporters at the Pennington County Courthouse, and the group is always eager to welcome more young people.
“There are some states that don’t hire official reporters,” said Teresa Fink, 54, incoming president of the South Dakota Court Reporters Association. “They are already doing electronic recording, and we have been fighting that for years.”
The National Court Reporters Association declared this week National Court Reporting and Captioning Week, and although some people might consider court reporting drudgery, consider this: In every major case in state and American history — the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, for example — someone had to be there to take down every word.
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By next year, there will be a shortage of about 5,500 court reporters across the United States, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the NCRA. About 50 of those open positions will be in South Dakota.
Reasons cited for the shortage include increased legal activity, significant retirement rates and lower enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters.
South Dakota doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar court-reporting school. But from the '60s to the '90s, Sioux Falls was home to the Stenotype Institute of South Dakota, where a good number of the state’s present court reporters graduated.
Those interested in the profession can either earn their credentials online or attend school in neighboring states.
The tuition varies per program. For instance, the Indiana-based College of Court Reporting’s online program toward an associate degree in court reporting costs at least $31,000. The campus-based associate program in judicial reporting from Minnesota’s Anoka Technical College costs at least $19,000.
The academic training takes about two years. Students graduate after passing a steno machine test that requires a typing speed of 225 words per minute with 97 percent accuracy. (Professional-level speed on a regular QWERTY keyboard is 80 to 90 words per minute.)
Entry-level court reporters in South Dakota earn about $45,000 a year, said Fink, who has been a freelance and official court reporter for a combined 35 years. Reporters earn additional income when lawyers or parties in a case ask for court transcripts, which cost $3.40 per page for the first set of transcripts.
Besides doing court reporting, professionals in the field can also work as captioners to assist people with hearing impairment in business meetings, classrooms, theaters, churches and television programs.
Because of the growing demand for captioners, particularly for sporting events such as football and baseball, more men are joining the industry, according to the National Court Reporters Association. However, for now, the NCRA reports that 88 percent of its members are women.
“Public perception is that the profession was one that was typically more attractive to women,” said Annemarie Roketenetz, NCRA assistant director for communications.
Among South Dakota’s 71 court reporters, official and freelance, only six are men.
One of them is George Cameron, 64, a recent transplant from Louisville, Ky. He decided to study court reporting a few years after high school when, unsure which career to pursue, a friend’s lawyer-father advised him and his pals to become court reporters.
Coming from a state where the courts have shifted to electronic recorders, Cameron emphasized the importance of having people as record keepers.
Machines can malfunction at the most crucial moments, he said, citing a civil trial back home 10 years ago that relied on an audio-video recorder.
“They ran that equipment for the entire month for this trial. They had video and no audio. They had absolutely no record .… They had to redo the whole trial,” Cameron said. “It just gets lax when there’s not a person with their finger on the button charged with that duty.”
An audio recording can also become incoherent, such as when a person speaks too fast or two people speak at the same time. A court reporter can give people instructions to slow down or speak one at a time. And if a witness uses body language, the reporter can ask a lawyer to describe the actions for the record.
The job has its challenges, including sitting for long hours and hand strain from repetitive typing.
Fink said judges usually take a recess every hour-and-a-half to two hours so reporters can take a break. If there’s an urgent need to step out, such as to use the bathroom, reporters can ask the judge for permission to take a break.
And as you can imagine in a job that requires sitting quietly, typing for sometimes hours on end, there is sometimes physical strain. To counter that, reporters do exercises to keep their dexterity at a professional level.
Overall, court reporters are proud of their contributions to the American judicial process ... and being silent witnesses to history.