CEU Article - Bye-Bye Paper Transcript
by Beth HuberHow will electronic filing affect reporters? Here's one scenario.
The official court reporter leaned heavily on the counter of the Prothonotary's Office and scribbled the court term and number of her expedited case, then handed the slip to the balding, bespectacled gentleman with hearing aids perched in both ears. Clutched in her other hand was a crumpled sheet of proper names and technical terms she needed to double-check.
She thought she had been fastidious about getting all the spellings she needed, but a dozen had slipped by, and there were two similarly sounding names that she had a feeling were the same person. Of course they came up all over the place. Her phone calls produced no results; so she zeroed in on the pleadings. Her transcript had to be filed with the attorney's motion for a stay in the Superior Court by 4:15 p.m., and she had 200 pages to print and exhibits to copy and attach to the original. Adding to the excitement, a runner from the attorney's office was due in an hour to pick up the transcript.
If "Prothy" were like her favorite supermarket, open 24 hours, she could have avoided this dilemma and done her research last night. She tried not to notice the gnawing in her stomach as the clerk shuffled back to the counter empty-handed.
"You might want to follow me, Miss. We keep that case in another room."
"Oh, my God," she sighed while her eyes followed his gnarled, pointing finger. A choir of Pavarotti-sized file folders bulged from the metal shelving attached to the wall. Trying to sift through all that information would be like panning for a lost gold earring in a landfill and expecting to find it in 20 minutes. She hated to do it, but she decided to make educated guesses to meet the filing deadline. Single-spaced errata sheets danced in her head.
Making a Digital Record
Paper. Time. Too much of one, not enough of the other. The Information Age has provided a solution to this problem - electronic filing, which is all about space and retrieval time.
Electronic filing eliminates paper at its source. One company, Optika, offers an integrated document management system that utilizes the Internet so that "... customers can capture, view, file, store, retrieve, share, print, fax and even route documents of virtually any format." Simply put, every document associated with a federal, state or county court can be electronically filed on an imaging system or optical disk by scanning or e-mailing and be easily retrieved by any user. Anyone with access to the system could use his or her Web browser for entry into the network. Users would have an account and password. Backup is maintained by data processing requirements.
How would this change the scenario above? While editing the case, the reporter could have taken her list of technical terms, gone into her Web browser and typed in her password and the case number of her expedited transcript. It wouldn't have mattered that the Prothonotary had been closed for hours; she could go right to the pull-down list of entries and find the report of the expert witness, which she knew from the testimony was attached to the motion in limine. Bingo. Got her spellings. Then she would go back to the pull-down list and find the answers to interrogatories and confirm her suspicion that the two attorneys actually were different pronunciations of the same name. Searching time: less than 15 minutes.
Now for those pesky exhibits. Per the e-filing rules in the county, exhibits were scanned and attached to the transcript file with the original hard copies retained by counsel. Sometimes you would get lucky, and the attorneys would already have their exhibits scanned and give you the disk for filing. What a welcome replacement of the weighty tomes of five-inch-thick binders that accessorized most civil trials only a few years ago.
For the certification page, the reporter and her judge would have the signature capture hardware that enabled them to have a signed document. She would sign the certification page and electronically send the completed transcript to the judge's chambers. The judge would affix his signature to the electronic original, and his secretary would enter the case number and her password, open up the case file and attach the transcript. The software would route the transcript to a WORM (Write Once Read Many) optical disk, where it would be encoded by a laser. These disks, or "platters," are stored in a "jukebox," and the reference points to that image are put in the database for quick retrieval.
The platters are where transcripts are put on a "Slim-Fast" diet. A jukebox in the Information Age doesn't spin Elvis tunes on old 45s. These modules vary in size according to capacity and are rather bland looking compared to their flashy namesake, but can they put it away without gaining an ounce. Each disk can hold 130,000 pages; the largest jukebox holds 128 disks. That's 16.6 million pages.
Taking these statistics a step further, a network can support 36 of the largest jukeboxes, which equals 597.6 million images, any one of which can be accessed in eight seconds. How much space do you need to store 36 of these modules? Imagine a showroom displaying 36 refrigerators.
Security and Access
Back to the expedited transcript. The reporter had done her part when she e-mailed the original to the judge; the transcript could now be accessed in the system. With e-filing, there would be no need to transfer those overweight accordion files down to Superior Court. The Prothonotary would e-file the case with the Superior Court. After processing, the Superior Court judge, or more likely his law clerk, would bring up the attorney's motion and the transcript at her workstation and print hard copies of the relevant testimony. The clerk's judge was from the old school (didn't trust computers) and had obtained the password to the level that permitted printing pages of a transcript.
In computerese, different levels of access to information are called galleries, a fancy name for the pecking order of the users. Getting these rights is like getting on the "A" list to a Hollywood party. The highest level of access, other than the network supervisor, is granted only to the reporter, who could print or modify the transcript. We are the stars when it comes to the record! A judge or his clerk would have the password to the gallery that permitted printing of any transcript. Everyone else could only press their face against the screen and look. They would have to come to us for an invitation.
That invitation takes the form of a password. The court reporter would create a password for her expedited transcript and e-mail her bill and access information to the attorneys. Both lawyers would have PCs with a Web browser, so with her password they could download her transcript. By 9 a.m., they would have an arsenal of information, her transcript loaded in their laptops and would be ready to plead their case. Gone would be the days of having a bunker of cardboard boxes behind counsel table. Attorneys will have to find another way to intimidate the other side.
What about the general public having access to transcripts? Imaging systems offer public access screens where an interested party could type in a case number or view a menu for that case that lists the transcripts pertinent to that case, but the print button would be dim. The public could view a transcript; however, custom programming would display a message, "Access restricted. For a printout of transcript, please contact ..." and the screen would display the reporter's name and phone number.
It's on the Way
Ladies and gentlemen of the court reporting profession, the technology discussed here is not the backdrop to a science fiction novel of the future. All the software and hardware is in stock; it's just a question of when your state or county takes delivery. Microsoft is lending its clout in the form of technical support and software to get the Los Angeles Family Law Court up and running on an e-filing system. The American Bar Association Journal reports that dozens of state and federal courts have begun pilot e-filing programs. A county court in Pennsylvania now scans its civil court filings on an imaging system and has appointed a judge to study the implementation of attorneys e-filing their pleadings. Luckily, the official reporters in this county were asked for their input.
Laws will have to be passed governing this new form of technology. Official and freelance reporters will be at ground zero when this technology explodes and radiates its influence on the legal system. Our national and state associations need our support so they can use their muscle to lobby for laws that protect our important role in the judicial process. We're already ahead of the game because our work product, CAT, will fit seamlessly in any e-filing system. Let's be proactive about our future.
Freelancers take heed. Lawyers will want electronic deposition transcripts, not just an ASCII disk. The NCRA Service Corporation already endorses PubNETics, which offers a program that creates a "read-only, accurate, encrypted and password-protected copy of your certified transcript that can be securely and instantly delivered over the Internet."
So, you might want to hermetically seal a couple of your 1,000-page trials for memorabilia or doorstops because attorneys and judges in the courtroom will view the contents of any court file on monitors or palm-sized laptops in the near future. There will be a computer on every judge's bench (it will even be turned on) as the Generation Xers move up the ranks of society and start to wear the robes.
About the Author
Beth Huber, RPR, is from Norristown, Pa.