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Crime & Courts

Looming court-reporter shortage worries legal professionals

Kelli Lardy is responsible for capturing everything that’s said during a court hearing or a trial. She is the official court reporter for Judge Robert Spears in Codington County, where she produces transcripts for judges and lawyers whenever they need to review a case. She also provides limited administrative support, like scheduling hearings.

Lardy learned about court reporting in an unusual way. More than a decade ago while still playing the bass guitar for a heavy metal rock band, she spent her free time competing in online typing races on Facebook. Lardy’s sister suggested the field of court reporting, noticing Lardy’s fast typing skills.

“I just find that really interesting and so going to court can be like, ‘What’s going to happen today?’” Lardy said. “So, it’s always changing, and it can be really unpredictable how it turns out. You think the jury might go one way, but they end up going the other way or vice versa.”

Court officials wish they could find more people like Lardy. There are currently 42 court reporters and five open positions across the state. In the next five years, 30% of court reporters are eligible for retirement. In the next decade, 50% hit retirement age.

Tools of the trade

Court-reporting is a niche profession that requires very particular skills. Lardy uses an electronic steno machine, which is a small, computer-like machine but with only 22 keys. Using what’s called "steno language," court reporters utilize simultaneous key combinations to type quickly.

It’s nearly silent when Lardy types. She admits moving from her steno machine to a traditional keyboard requires some adjustment.

“Sometimes you get tripped up," she said.

In court, the steno machine translates words into English using a dictionary unique to each court reporter. Lardy said the dictionary allows court reporters some creativity.

State Court Administrator Greg Sattizahn hopes the things Lardy likes about the job will attract more people to consider the profession. He said one position has been open for more than two and a half years without any qualified applicants.

“We really try to go out and do things like career fairs and visiting high schools and trying to collaborate with the law school and state bar to generate that interest," Sattizahn said, "because it seems like the pipeline of court reporters — and this is not unique to South Dakota — is closing up, and so it’s just not pushing out as many as states need."

Certification training takes two years. Graduates must type 225 words per minute with 97% accuracy. South Dakota does not offer a court reporting program, but Anoka Technical College in Minnesota offers an online program for South Dakota residents. The National Court Reporters Association provides information to anyone interested through a free class called Discover A to Z.

The human element

Teresa Fink is the official court reporter for Judge Craig Pfeifle in Rapid City. She graduated in 1982 from the former Stenotype Institute in Sioux Falls and now plans to retire in the next few years. She visits classrooms to encourage middle school and high school students to consider the career.

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Courtesy photo
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Tara Rollinger
Teresa Fink presents to a high school speech class in Baltic.

“If you’re a musician or a gamer, you know you’re using your dexterity, your hand-eye coordination,” Fink said. “If you’re good at grammar, if you like the technology part, you’re good at troubleshooting, those are all great characteristics of a court reporter.”

Fink said strong texting skills can help someone learn the steno language, since texting is just another form of shorthand.

Kelli Lardy said court reporters have the authority to take control of the courtroom to ensure an accurate transcript. They can interrupt a witness or lawyer if they couldn’t hear clearly.

Some states no longer use court reporters and substitute with an audio system. However, ensuring accuracy is a feature even advanced audio recording systems do not have.

“When they first hear about it, their first gut reply will be like, ‘Well, don’t you think you’ll just be replaced by technology anytime soon?’” Lardy said. “They’ve been saying that for 20-some years and no, we’re not going anywhere. And we won’t be replaced because there’s just no replacement for a real-life court reporter.”

However, some South Dakota courtrooms use audio systems out of necessity.