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Last word in court: low pay

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Back in the dark ages when men were still expected to be upset by such things, a woman I had met at the courthouse and was dating said, "I hope my income isn't going to be a problem."

Knowing where she worked, I allowed as how I had just ended a relationship with a Vista volunteer, was used to the company of poverty stricken women and would not be at all bothered by the circumstances of a poor court reporter.

"I don't think you understand," she said, and named a salary figure that was roughly twice what I made then.

During the following months we shared a brief marriage, and I got a firsthand education about how what had at first seemed like an awful lot of money _ wasn't.

We have both remarried, and I want to make it clear that I no longer have a personal stake in the financial welfare of court reporters. But I do have a taxpayer's stake.

The history of criminal justice is chock full of instances where the official record of a trial made the difference between conviction and acquittal _ sometimes life or death _ in a case.

And it is not a matter of the undotted i's or uncrossed t's that conservatives so love to whine about in any discussion of the justice system. It is the simple word-for-word preservation of evidence presented through testimony. The record leads to conviction as often as it does to acquittal.

I clearly remember one Pasco murder case where the defendant, testifying against his attorney's advice, was asked why he had escaped from jail after his arrest.

"Because I knew I had committed a murder and I knew I couldn't prove I hadn't," he said. His testimony, given with a thick accent and through missing teeth, was accurately recorded and read back by the court reporter to a jury that convicted him a few minutes later.

I raise this subject now because what is happening to court reporters in Pasco and Pinellas counties just isn't fair, and it is we who will suffer for it.

A state government too gutless to bite the tax bullet, simply cut funding for court reporters. The government, of course, didn't do anything to cut crime, it just limited our ability to deal with it.

There are some sub-squabbles between free-lance and official court reporters, but the basic thrust is that counties, now saddled with the brunt of the cost, are being forced to roll back fees to 1991 rates. The 1991 rates represented the first raise court reporters have had in five years.

In some instances that results in overall cuts of more than 16 percent per year in gross income for people who are actually self-contained businesses and have substantial overhead costs, sometimes including loans for the two years of training it took them to learn their difficult task.

They also usually have equipment costs and supply fees to maintain and have lost their hospitalization insurance as a part of the temporary fix in place.

They work long hours on short notice under terrific stress. Try paying attention to every word of a highly technical two-hour discourse some time with the realization that a failure to do so could drastically alter somebody's life.

Far more than half of the court reporters I know are women, many are the heads of their households and worked at menial jobs to pull themselves an extra rung or two up the ladder.

If we want to keep putting the bad guys in jail, there are costs. You need jails. You need judges, public defenders and you need prosecutors . . . and you need someone reliable and relatively independent keeping trial records.

Some think electronics can do the job; they obviously have better cable companies than I do.

In the end, we will get what we pay for, and we will lose what we don't.