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Report says Conn. court transcript system flawed

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press / January 25, 2011

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HARTFORD, Conn.—A report Tuesday says major overhauls are needed to make information about Connecticut court proceedings more accessible to the public, attorneys and state agencies.

The report, issued by an advisory committee to the state Judicial Branch, recommends using digital technology to record all court proceedings so people can listen on compact discs if they don't want to order paper transcripts.

A spokeswoman for the court system, Rhonda Stearley Hebert, said Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers agrees with the recommendations and they will be adopted, though it will take a few years.

"We have an implementation team working on phasing it in," she said, adding they recognize that more people are representing themselves in court and that the branch wants to ensure access and accountability.

Transcripts of court proceedings can cost up to $6.45 per page depending on whether they're needed in a rush -- and, with some trials lasting weeks, the cost can run into thousands of dollars for people who might want to review only a snippet of testimony.

The report also says the current system gives Connecticut court reporters a legal but troubling way to double-dip by preparing transcript copies on state time for attorneys and other requesters, who then reimburse them directly.

That, the report says, can be "quite a lucrative endeavor" for court reporters and court monitors. All told, Connecticut court reporters last year received about $1 million in transcript payments beyond their regular salaries, it says.

"The cost of transcripts can be a barrier to justice and their production by state employees raises ethical concerns," the report says.

A message left for the president of the Connecticut Court Reporters Association, a professional group representing the industry, was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Connecticut defense attorney James Bergenn called the state's system and the charges for transcripts "a very substantial problem" for attorneys and anyone interested in openness in judicial proceedings.

"Justice is supposed to be as accessible as possible," Bergenn said. "The cost of transcripts becomes so prohibitive, and in this age of technology, it shouldn't be something that we even have to think twice about."

The advisory committee's report, issued in November, was posted on the branch's website Tuesday.

The committee that wrote the report, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz, does not advocate eliminating written transcripts entirely, since they often are needed for appeals.

Connecticut's court proceedings are tracked with digital audio recordings, analog cassette tape recordings or on stenographic machines by court reporters who later transcribe the notes. Getting copies of transcripts can cost between 75 cents and $6.45 per page, depending on who is ordering and whether they are in a rush.

Utah and New Hampshire already use only digital audio recording for their proceedings, using vendors to prepare requested transcripts rather than having state workers tasked with those jobs.

Several other states -- including Florida, California, Nebraska, Missouri and New Jersey -- have transcripts prepared both by outside vendors and in-house employees.