Court stenographers in the Montgomery County Circuit Court have been notified they will be replaced next month by an elaborate $300,000 computerized tape-recording system designed to keep track of proceedings in 15 courtrooms at once.
Calling it a move in the name of "modern technology," Administrative Judge David L. Cahoon informed the seven court reporters in letters Wednesday that they will be replaced by a tape recorder June 18.
"Approximately 18 months ago, you were informed that the judges of this court had investigated and concluded that through modern technology, an electronic recording and reporting system was available . . . " Cahoon wrote. "On June 18 , any funding for your court reporter position will cease."
But court reporters, who earn between $15,000 and $25,000 a year, oppose the transfer to a taping system because they say it is less accurate than a reporter and will be more costly.
"The idea of taping the court record sounds great, but a tape recorder can't work out the complicated spelling of a witness' name," said one court reporter who asked not to be named.
Other reporters, who also refused to be named, argued that tape recordings can be distorted by poor acoustics and extraneous noises and that recorders cannot pick up the nonverbal responses of witnesses.
"We have simply moved into more modern times," said Howard M. Smith, the clerk of Circuit Court. "All of our judges have voted to use the modern technology because it is more efficient."
Smith, who said the Montgomery County taping system is similar to the one used by D.C. Superior Court, said that accurate transcripts can be made from tapes and that the county has found a transcription firm that will produce typed transcripts for only $1.30 a page. Court reporters currently charge about $2.25 a page to produce a transcript, he said.
Ric Nelson, chief of technical services, said the taping system consists of 15 eight-track taping units linked to a central computer and all monitored by one person. He said two of the reporters have been hired to remain on the staff as additional monitors of the equipment.
"The judges voted to install this system with the idea that we would phase out all of our staff court reporters and some reporters who work on a contract basis," Nelson said. "The question was whether there was an electronic taping system that could accurately recoup testimony in a court our size."
To answer the question, Nelson said the Baird Corporation, which built the D.C. court's system, custom-made a system for Montgomery County.
A recent survey of lawyers who frequently practice in D.C. showed that many of them are unhappy with the performance of the court's electronic reporting system, according to the National Shorthand Reporters Association in Vienna, Va.
"Respondents to the survey clearly indicated less than satisfactory ratings for the completeness, accuracy, and speed for completion of transcripts from the electronic systems," according to the study released last month.