When JoAnn Carson says she works as a court reporter, many people assume she's a journalist who covers the judicial system. Actually, Carson is a court stenographer, whose job is to produce a verbatim transcript of trials, depositions, public hearings and other official proceedings. "What I hear is what I write," she says. "There's no cleaning up the spoken word."
Carson, who lives in Burlington, has been a freelance court reporter for 26 years. A graduate of a two-year court-reporter program at Champlain College, she's worked in a variety of settings: law offices, bankruptcy court, even court-martial proceedings at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Carson's primary work tool is a stenograph. The machine, which captures words and phrases by pushing different combination of keys, is wired to a laptop computer.
Court reporting can be a lucrative profession, especially since trained professionals are in short supply. Even voice-recognition software and other high-tech recording devices are no substitute for a live person in the room who can request that a word be repeated, check the correct spelling of a name, or capture other goings-on that a machine can miss. Sometimes, Carson even reads the lips of witnesses to ensure she's getting an accurate record. In fact, a number of other states that switched to using electronic recording devices in courtrooms have since returned to court reporters because they're far more accurate.
One downside to her profession? Turning it off. Sometimes, Carson admits, while she's sitting in church, her fingers automatically type what she's hearing.
SEVEN DAYS: How has your profession changed since you began?
JOANN CARSON: By leaps and bounds. When I started, our machines were manual and we would do transcripts on typewriters with carbon copies. [Now] we're in real time. So, as you're speaking, I'm writing and you can read what you just said on my screen. It comes out about 99 percent accurate. Afterwards, I go back and put in the punctuation I missed and words that don't transcribe. And names are always a problem.
SD: How do you record things people say that aren't words? Do you spell them phonetically?
JC: Yeah. Like the Vermont "Ayup!" That was a new one to me. We spell them the way we hear them. I was taught that we don't have to put in the "ums" and "uhs" . . . We write by sound. Typing is one letter at a time. Hopefully, we are writing a word or phrase at a time. To get out of school, you need [to write] 225 words a minute. That's never fast enough. I have my merit degree. That's 260 words a minute. Even that's not always fast enough. Sometimes you just have to interrupt and say, "Hello? Remember me?"
SD: What's an acceptable degree of accuracy in your profession?
JC: I think you need 98 percent accuracy or better. When we have depositions, we send the transcript to the deponent and give him an errata sheet and say, "Read this and correct it where I got it wrong."
SD: Are there keystroke shortcuts on your computer?
JC: Yeah. I have dictionary of approximately 42,000 words and punctuation. And I'm always improving it. For instance, I didn't like the way I was writing "unfortunately." So I made up a new stroke. I do that for words I use all the time. Like, I do a lot of public utility work, so I have "Vermont Yankee," "Verizon" and other words that come up all the time.
SD: You remember all 42,000 shortcuts?
JC: Yeah, it's second nature. I write at 260 words a minute, so it's got to be instantaneous. If you've ever seen closed captioning on TV, that's a court reporter. They're called captioners.
SD: What was the hardest case you've worked?
JC: The most challenging case I've done to date was about four or five years ago when Hydro-Quebec and the Vermont joint owners were fighting over the Hydro-Quebec contract, the ramifications of the ice storm and who was going to pay for what. My business partner and I were hired to do the official transcript in English, which is important because Hydro-Quebec is in Montreal [and they] speak French.
It was an international arbitration with three arbitrators. It was all confidential and extended over six or seven weeks, and went in phases over a two-year period. We hooked in seven attorneys to our laptops so they could read the real-time transcript as it was being done. It was also daily copy, where we produce a transcript at the end of the day. One of us would do the morning session, one of us would do the afternoon session. We moved into the Radisson Hotel and made it our office for the month of July. It was very technical but also very fascinating.
SD: What's the toughest part of your job?
JC: It depends upon the setting you're in. I do public hearings for the Public Service Board, and those are tough because the public is not used to speaking before a crowd. For instance, I was in Brattleboro last Tuesday night for Vermont Yankee -- dry cask storage -- and that's always a very lively public hearing. It's a great turnout but everyone wants to speak. And there had to have been 50 people speaking, if not more. And that's tough because they don't enunciate, they mumble, you're in a cavernous auditorium. Accents can be difficult because people put the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable.
SD: What's the best part of the job?
JC: As a freelancer, the flexibility. And the variety. Every day is a new education. This week, for instance. Monday I worked at home doing depositions that I took last week in a civil case. Tuesday I was in bankruptcy court. Today I'm working at home doing more transcripts. Tomorrow I'm doing depositions in a criminal matter, and Friday I'm in Montpelier for a Public Service Board hearing all day. So the variety is wonderful, and it doesn't get boring because you're always learning new little factoids about different subjects.
SD: What skills are essential for being a good court reporter?
JC: Spelling. Spelling is key, because SpellCheck doesn't catch everything. You have to be a good keyboard person and you've got to have a lot of discipline . . . You're not going to get through court-reporting school if you don't have discipline, because it's just too hard.
SD: Do people ever say things that are distracting or funny?
JC: Yeah. At this hearing in Brattleboro, one of the speakers was very enthusiastic as he was speaking, and he dropped the F-bomb. Everyone was taken aback by it. He immediately apologized for it. And, I had one expert witness get on the witness stand, and I guess he was new to his testifying days. The attorney asked, "What is your name?" and he keeled over and passed out. They took him out on a stretcher. That was very embarrassing for him.
SD: How did you note that?
JC: I don't remember what I did. Probably "Interruption." I've had people who were nervous about testifying and have thrown up before they've testified. And, there are always a lot of tears. Some of this stuff is difficult to listen to.
SD: Do you note it if someone cries or throws up?
JC: No. But I do note laughter and applause.