This is the first in a series of articles about court reporters and their experiences as guardians of the official transcripts of court-related proceedings.
Today’s troubling tale comes from a woman we’ll call Connie. Her accent accurately reflects where she was raised; she is a true “New Yorker.” Within the next few years, she plans to end her career as a New York State certified court reporter- a position she has held for more than fifteen years. It is a job, she says, that once made her proud.
“No more. Not for a long time, now,” she says, adding, “I’d like to cleanse my soul a bit at this point in my life.”
She doesn’t exactly remember the first time she heard that fateful phrase--words that now haunt her, “Clean up the record” - the ‘code’ that is used when judges, attorneys, fellow court workers- or anyone sufficiently connected- need to re-write history. While most people believe that “cleaning up the record” involves a court reporter’s correction of misspellings or double-checking for accuracy, Connie knows differently.
Over the last few years, according to Connie, the directive to alter official transcripts of court proceedings has become “more brazen and blunt.” About two years ago, Connie and a fellow reporter were alone finalizing transcripts in the room at the courthouse reserved for court reporters. Her always-smiling friend cheerfully answered the ringing telephone, and quickly responded to the caller, “…yes, this is she. Oh, hello Judge.” Then silence. There was no “good-bye,” just a long pause, followed by the slow sound of the receiver being placed back on its cradle.
“What was that about? Connie asked.” She was not shocked by her friend’s reply, “The judge said to ‘do something with the first 3 paragraphs of page 16.’ He said he ‘didn’t mean to say that.’” There was silence until another co-worker entered the room about an hour later.
I Am the Lord, Thy God
Connie says she is not alone, and virtually every court reporter she has ever known shares her mostly-silent sadness about the ‘darker side’ of their work to theoretically create an honest and official written record of court related proceedings. “I can honestly say that I am ashamed to have witnessed, and yes- participated, in wrongful conduct concerning official court transcripts,” she says. And after a long pause, she adds, “But you learn to justify things, I guess.”
Early on in her career, Connie was like most court employees: respectful and outright- admiring of the many men and women judges for whom she worked. One attorney, who asked that his name not be used, knows what Connie is talking about, “The judges are gods, higher than kings- they are the boss, your boss. You do what they say- period, end of story. If you want to survive, and keep your job, you do what the boss- or those acting on his or her behalf- says.”
Blind Administrative Oversight
Connie tells the story of a court reporter that once complained to the Administrative Judge that she was getting pressured to improperly alter transcripts. The woman told Connie that the Administrative Judge, and who is supposed to oversee the operations of the courthouse, advised her that, “You know, everyone makes mistakes. Maybe you made mistakes- you’re human. Maybe you should just do what you are told to do.” That reporter was transferred to another courthouse a few weeks later.
Only on rare occasions did Connie ever openly voice her discomfort with what she describes as “the widespread practice of altering court transcripts.” She once vented to the family friend who had been instrumental in securing Connie’s first job at a “good” courthouse. Since childhood, Connie had always referred to this woman as her “aunt” - a “proper women” who actively mingled with lawyers and judges in “equestrian and politically connected circles.”
Upon hearing Connie’s dismay over what she believed to be no real regard for the integrity of official court transcripts, her aunt paused briefly and said, “Play the game, my dear. The ‘whips’ of New York’s judiciary are always victorious.”
Connie, a bit stunned, got the message and had understood the “whips” reference. In equestrian parlance, ”Whips” are staff members who assist the huntsman and who make sure the hounds “do right.” “I then realized that I was merely a well-paid, court reporting ‘hound’ under the direction of the court-administrative huntsmen to ‘do right’ for the judges and their connected friends.”
“Officers” of the Court
“Before fully getting the message, an attorney usually only has to hear one time that transcripts are ‘missing’ or that there were ‘technical difficulties,’” says Connie, adding, “Someone will quickly explain official court transcript reality to this naive counselor.” Connie says that any lawyer who makes a big fuss about transcripts is quickly labeled a troublemaker, and that they will soon learn how severe the consequences can be. Connie says, “Most people don’t realize that being an ‘officer of the court’ means ‘unquestioned obedience’- or else. ”
“A courthouse ‘cold shoulder’ can have serious consequences,” says the attorney. “Word travels pretty quickly in the halls of justice which can, not coincidentally, result in a string of ‘bad’ rulings that can literally ruin your legal practice. And if you don’t get that message you will quickly become a ‘target’ of the entire court system.” He explains that to mean that one’s legal career just may soon come to an end.
If It Pleases The Court
Well, it better. For Connie, the turning point came- from the once “dark inside court secret” to the current brazen manipulation of official transcripts- while she was assigned to a judge known to have “liquid lunches.” At the conclusion of the morning court session, and while still on the record and in open court, the judge told Connie to, “Be ready, you’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do this afternoon after lunch.” While the court officer, court clerk and law secretary enjoyed a hearty laugh, Connie got the message that the court transcript- true or false- should only portray the judge in a “good light.” The lawyer says that it’s common knowledge that court transcripts are routinely altered. “And we’re not just talking about adjusting ‘ums’ and ‘ahs,’” he says.
“That’s what it’s about now. Don’t’ make the judge look bad- ever- and make whatever other changes to the transcript that you are told to make- without comment, “ says Connie. Last month, Connie entered a judge’s elevator where a judge, another reporter and two “favored courthouse attorneys” were finishing a spirited conversation. The court reporter turned from one of the lawyers and addressed the judge, “Do you want me to change it?”
Connie is “very mindful,” as she describes it, of New York court reporter Maurice Schwartzberg’s questioning by the Commission on Judicial Conduct about 2 years ago when he was forced to admit that he had been directed to change official court transcripts. “One of these days, they’re going to make an example out of someone. And I don’t want that person to be me.”
Coming soon in Confessions of a Court Reporter: Connie’s suggestions and solutions; Connie’s fight over the word “not” and more stories from other court reporters……
Editor’s Note: The actual identity of the Court Reporter referenced in this story as “Connie” is not known to this forum or any official forum contributors, administrators, writers, researchers, etc. However, sufficient indirect confirmation of the information presented and the employment status has been obtained.