Iowa’s court reporter shortage could get even worse

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Not many careers can guarantee job openings at any given time, but this one — described by employees as “interesting, challenging and fascinating” — has 33 openings in Iowa with an annual starting pay of nearly $56,000.

Court reporters in Iowa and nationally are in high demand, but there aren’t enough people pursuing the career or not graduating fast enough to combat the crisis level shortage that Iowa courts have been experiencing for the last several years.

These positions are crucial to the judicial system because they are responsible for making an accurate, verbatim official record of trials and other court proceedings. Court reporters are the eyes and ears of the courtroom that judges, lawyers and litigants depend on every day.

State Court Administrator Bob Gast with the Iowa Judicial Branch told The Gazette the shortage continues because there haven’t been enough certified shorthand reporter graduates to replace retirees, and many who are working now are nearing retirement. It takes two years to finish training and then students must pass a certification test — which they agree isn’t easy.

Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Chicchelly said the fact that there’s only one school in the state — Des Moines Area Community College — with a two-year real time/court reporting degree — has contributed to the problem. She thinks other states may have an advantage if they have more schools offering the program.

“Even if a school did open, this problem can’t be solved quickly,” said Chicchelly, of Cedar Rapids, who previously was a 6th district judge for eight years. “The district court has a large workload — it’s a hard job. And we need that live reporting and depend on it for the appellate record.”

Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa and Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill., are working on programs but aren’t up and running yet. Gast said they may be lagging because they don’t have enough faculty.

The DMACC program was offered at the Newton campus, but in the fall the program went virtual. Gast and others hoped that would attract more students, and it did have the largest enrollment for many years, with 48 students.

Gast said he can “guarantee” a job to those 48 if they graduate and become certified shorthand reporters. Iowa Workforce Development projected there will be 30 positions available annually through 2028.

An industry outlook study showed about 5,000 to 5,500 court reporters across the nation will retire over the next several years, creating a high demand for jobs, according to the National Court Reporters Association. The average national median salary is $62,000, with the top 10 earning more than $100,000.

Court reporters convert spoken words to text using stenography. They use key strokes on a steno machine that has 22 keys and works when multiple keys are pressed simultaneously to spell out syllables, words and phrases.

Laura McFall, court reporter in Southeast Iowa’s 8th Judicial District, said it is like “chords on a piano.” Words are spelled out phonetically and allow reporters to type more than 200 words a minute.

“It’s a very unique job — a skill not everyone has or can do,” said Sarah Hyatt, court reporter with the 6th Judicial District, which includes Benton, Linn, Iowa, Johnson, Jones and Tama counties. “We write the words phonetically and then go back and correct the record.”

“We also use our specialized software program to build dictionaries of common words and phrases,” McFall said. “It allows us to write multiple words with one stroke of the machine.”

The reporters have shortcuts that allow them to write faster than on the QWERTY keyboard that is used for a computer or laptop.

To receive certification, a shorthand reporter must pass a written exam and maintain 225 words a minute for five minutes, said McFall, who has been a courts reporter for 18 years. That is a minimum speed. People often talk faster than that, but the faster speeds aren’t sustained in reality like in the exam, McFall said. There may be “bursts” of faster speeds, but the natural breaks in speaking during a hearing or trial, such as questions and answers, allow the reporters to keep up, she added.

The court reporters said they enjoy that each day is different. Depending on the court schedule, there could be family law, products liability, medical malpractice or wrongful death issues or numerous criminal cases, including robbery and murder.

“In district court, I’ve learned about all kinds of things,” said Hyatt, who has worked for the court system for over 15 years. “Once, I had a civil case that involved dairy farm operations and learned about cow breeding.”

Kathy Novak, 6th district court reporter, said in the role “you become somewhat of an expert on almost everything. You get to hear how fires start, how murders are committed, what makes parties divorce or neighbors’ feud.

“You get the inside look at people’s lives,” Novak continued. “And you are forever learning. To this day I am hearing and writing words that I had never heard before.”

Novak and others also point out that there are other job opportunities in the profession, outside of court. Shorthand reporters or stenographers can work freelance for law firms doing depositions, or in administrative hearings or do captioning work for broadcasts and educational materials.

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Lars Anderson said the shortage of court reporters has taken a toll on the ones who are working. In the past, each judge had one court reporter who also provided clerical support for the judge, but those days are gone.

Anderson and Judge Paul Miller haven’t had a court reporter assigned to them for years, Judge Ian Thornhill said. Thornhill hasn’t had one for nine months. Those judges have to share reporters from other judges when needed.

“This is beyond crisis mode,” Thornhill said. “Not a week goes by that something has to be bumped because there’s no court reporter. Part of the issue is that we can’t compete salary-wise for experienced court reporters.”

Many times, court reporters are running between two different judges who may have hearings at the same time on different floors of the courthouse, Hyatt had a situation like that a few weeks ago. Two hearings were scheduled for 1:30 p.m., so she did one and the other judge and lawyers had to wait until she got done to start their hearing.

“I can’t imagine what court administration does every day to make all the puzzle pieces fit,” Hyatt said.

Kellee Cortez, 6th Judicial District court administrator, said it’s a real challenge sometimes making schedules work with fewer reporters. Schedulers usually take the court reporters assigned for juvenile court to fill in for district court — because juvenile proceedings can be audio recorded instead.

Anderson said courts have tried to ease some of the workloads by doing some remote hearings. In those situations, a court reporter stays in Linn or Johnson, which have the busiest schedules, and reports remotely while the actual hearing is in a rural county.

Gast said he has been working on solutions with Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen, as well as others on the Court Reporter Utilization Committee that was formed and includes judges, court reporters and judicial staff.

Gast said they didn’t feel recording all court proceedings was the solution. A “hybrid” system that would allow limited court proceedings to be audio recorded without a court reporter making the record might help, but could require legislative changes.

The Iowa Supreme Court also has allowed court administration to bring back retired court reporters who are interested to work on a temporary basis. Gast said the retired reporters can work only limited hours because IPERS — the state employee retirement program — has wage limits. There may be 15 to 20 retirees across the state who could work at any given time, Gast said.

Cortez said a retired court reporter in Linn County has covered two trials and filled in just to help cover the schedule. It’s a great resource but not a permanent fix, she said.

Gast said a few other judicial branch employees have been interested in pursuing the court reporter program, so court administration is working with them to allow them to keep their current position while taking classes.

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, The Gazette.