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Two Days in the Hennepin County Central Monitoring Room
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Two Days in the Hennepin County Central Monitoring Room

by Margaret Ann Morgan, CER, CET

 

I am an official court reporter-electronic for Third Judicial District in Rochester, Minnesota and am certified through the Minnesota Supreme Court and AAERT (CER and CET). I work in the courtroom one-on-one with Judge Pamela King. When not in court, I have other chambers responsibilities (preparing correspondence and jury instructions; proofing decisional memoranda; responding to inquiries from the public, attorneys, or other court partners; and as a back-up to Judge King's court clerk). I also work for other judges when her/his court reporter is not available. I prepare my own transcripts and am required to do them outside of regular work hours.

One benefit of AAERT membership is learning how other courts function, including central monitoring rooms. I have to admit that a central monitoring room environment has always terrified me. I am accustomed to being present in the courtroom capturing a verbatim record one hearing at a time, start to finish, and writing detailed log notes. I struggle with the thought of being responsible for monitoring multiple courtrooms, not hearing every word, and not being present in the courtroom to interrupt the proceeding when something occurs that impacts the record. In my mind, being located on another floor or a different building and having to simultaneously monitor multiple courtrooms is simply impossible. But read on.

I am participating in a work group where central monitoring was a topic. To better understand the central monitoring environment, I wanted to experience it firsthand. I worked two days in the Hennepin County Central Monitoring Room in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the 2015 AAERT conference in Minneapolis, attendees toured this impressive unit.

I have strong feelings about the presence of a court reporter in the courtroom to control the capture of the record. I tried to put those feelings aside while working in the Central Monitoring Room ("CMR") and went in with an open mind. I was nervous and a little anxious about having to simultaneously report multiple courtrooms. I imagined it would be like a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant (a family-friendly/kid-friendly pizza place that has every possible video arcade game, animated entertainment, and music, all going at the same time). To someone like me, that is total sensory overload!

The first morning I worked one-on-one with "Jane." She was assigned two lightly-scheduled courtrooms, which gave her the opportunity to explain to me what she does and their procedures. Wearing a second headset, I listened to the proceedings while observing Jane capture/monitor the proceedings and write tags. She moved between courtrooms with ease, and her notes were organized and complete.

I was struck by the organization and level of communication among the users in the courtroom and the reporters in the CMR. "Users" include the court reporters, judicial clerks, courtroom clerks, judges, and attorneys. I was also struck by the structure in the unit. There is a procedure for everything. The audio was clear. Hennepin County uses CourtSmart with four recording channels. Since I am accustomed to ForTheRecord (“FTR”) with eight channels, that was an adjustment for me.

Under Jane's supervision that afternoon, I reported and wrote tags for two courtrooms. For a short time, I handled three courtrooms, which was challenging for me. By having to move between courtrooms, I found it difficult to follow the proceedings. I had family court cases in two courtrooms, both discussing custody and parenting time. I had trouble keeping the parties straight, and I couldn't write the level of detail in my notes that I usually do. That said, the more I moved between the courtrooms and by limiting the detail in my notes, I began to feel more comfortable.

The next day I worked alone reporting/monitoring and writing tags for two courtrooms with varied schedules. Jane and other reporters were nearby to answer my many questions. Since I am always in the courtroom and reporting one hearing at a time, my log notes are very detailed. In my regular work assignment, my notes are available to Judge King and her law clerk to reference at all times. I also add a separate monitor for Judge King during jury trials so she can review my notes when needed (similar to a real-time feed, but not verbatim). In the Central Monitoring Room, log notes or "tags" serve a different purpose. The tags are to note the start and end of a hearing, file number, case name, appearances, and limited summaries like "scheduling discussion," "discussion regarding child support payments," or key phrases that identify what is happening at or near the timestamp, such as "defendant sworn," "examination by Mr. Smith," or "hearing concluded." I had to adjust my note taking.

I struggled with writing less detail. Once I grasped the use of the notes for the CMR (as opposed to my regular use), it went much better. The court clerk in the courtroom also writes tags, and those are merged with the court reporter's tags. There are also shortcut phrases. With the double click of a mouse, a phrase is entered with a time stamp, such as "new case called," "off the record," or "case concluded." Because notes are less detailed, the reporters are able to move between courtrooms frequently. A timestamp is entered each time a reporter leaves one courtroom to monitor another.

At the end of the calendar, the courtroom clerk called me to advise they were finished for the morning. I stopped the recording system. Before the afternoon calendar was ready to begin, the courtroom clerk called me so I could start the recording system. On a separate monitor at my desk I watched for activity in my assigned courtrooms so I could anticipate when the morning or afternoon hearings were about to begin.

One of the courtrooms I was assigned had hearings scheduled approximately every 15 minutes. Between hearings, the recording system remained active so I captured the exchanges between the judge and clerk. I learned a little about the play Hamilton or the benefits and drawbacks of Uber or a taxi. There is a standard tag to note those types of conversations as "between hearing discussions," and they’re not part of the record.

The next day I reported for a judge scheduled with a civil calendar and a child support magistrate with family court hearings. At the beginning of her calendar, the judge instructed the attorneys regarding the digital reporting system and the importance of speaking into the microphone. She called the case and asked for appearances. In the other courtroom the magistrate called each case, recited the file number, asked for appearances (often self-represented parties), and stated the subject matter. When one party started talking over another party, the magistrate stopped the party and instructed him to not interrupt the other, to avoid speaking when someone else was speaking, and about proper procedure for the court record.

It was clear that the judges, judicial clerks, courtroom clerks, and attorneys are very much aware of the digital reporting system, the importance of staying in front of a microphone, and controlling interruptions or simultaneous talk. I assume this is something that evolved over time.

I also went into a courtroom to observe a proceeding. I wanted to see the "blue light" that indicates the recording system is on. I found myself constantly looking for the court reporter. I listened to the judge ask a witness to state and spell his name and then clarify if Jeffrey was spelled J-e-f-f-e-r-y or J-e-f-f-r-e-y. After starting to answer before his question was completed, the prosecutor instructed a witness not to talk at the same time and to wait for him to complete the question before answering. He referenced the digital reporting system. In my regular work assignment, these are things typically done by the court reporter.

The court reporters who regularly work in the Central Monitoring Room prefer to be assigned four courtrooms. Some are comfortable with more. I'm told they develop a rhythm. They know the types of courtrooms they need to "hang out" in more than others. I had to laugh when a reporter asked me if I was bored with having just two courtrooms!

On Mondays the CMR scheduling staff contacts the judges about the calendar for the following week. Based on the types of hearings, the judge determines court reporter needs: CMR (a "central monitoring room reporter") or IPR (an "in person reporter"). There are criteria about which hearing types require an IPR, such as jury trials, complex cases, multiple participants, etc. Some schedules are mandatory CMR calendars. The judges have input regarding their reporter needs.

A break in the Central Monitoring Room is a true break. I walked away for 20 minutes once in the morning and once in the afternoon. When I asked one of the reporters about it, she indicated the regular breaks and a set schedule was less stressful than having to work around the often chaotic courtroom schedule. In my regular work assignment, "breaks" from the courtroom consist of returning to my desk to do chambers tasks like preparing orders, checking email, voice mail, returning calls, etc. During breaks in the CMR, another CMR reporter takes over the other's courtrooms.

The reporters in the CMR are professionals. They are confident in the record captured and the transcripts they produce. I attribute the structure and organization of the Central Monitoring Room to the court reporters who manage, supervise, and work in the unit every day. There was a core group of six reporters in the CMR from the beginning. Five of those six are still there. They had significant input in creating procedures. If one procedure didn't work, they created a new one. I applaud Hennepin County Court Administration for having the insight to involve court reporters from day one in the creation and operation of the Central Monitoring Room. In 2012 AAERT recognized the Hennepin County Central Monitoring Room for keeping court reporters responsible for the court record, the individuals most knowledgeable about the capture, preservation, and preparing transcripts.

I still struggle with not being present in the courtroom. I believe it is the best practice for the court reporter to be in the courtroom controlling events that impact the record, reminding individuals to stay close to a microphone, not to speak over each other, request verbal responses (or note a nod/shake of the head), and address equipment malfunctions in the unlikely event one occurs. In my mind, it is the only way to ensure an accurate and complete record. I can write detailed log notes, which are used for the judge and/or the law clerk to review after-the-fact. I refer to them when preparing the transcript. Many courts contract with professional transcribers to prepare transcripts. Minimal or no log notes is a frequent complaint from transcribers who are expected to transcribe, identify speakers, note appearances, have proper spellings, etc. Transcribers do an incredible job, but more information in the notes would save them research time, result in faster turnaround times, and more accurate transcripts.

There is no doubt in my mind that the digital reporting systems capture an accurate record. I simply want to be there to respond to any situation that impacts the record. That said, after this experience I am less fearful of a central monitoring environment. Perhaps that is because I am an electronic court reporter. I am comfortable with and have total confidence in the digital reporting systems. But for the less detail in log notes and not hearing every word, it wasn't such a leap for me.

I asked Jane about not hearing every word and certifying transcripts. She said to me multiple times "let it go." "Trust the system." It was difficult for me to let it go. I have complete trust in the digital reporting systems. I use FTR every day and I know it captures an accurate record. I simply feel I need to be in the courtroom when the unexpected happens so I can interrupt when needed. By covering one hearing at a time, my notes are detailed. Judge King and her law clerk frequently refer to them. I can answer a question from court administration by reviewing my notes instead of having to scroll through the hearing to confirm the information. I refer to the notes when preparing transcripts, and they are available to another reporter or transcriber when I need help with transcripts. When covering multiple courtrooms, more detail in the notes is not possible. I don't mean to discredit the central monitoring room concept. Accurate recordings and transcripts are made in CMRs every single day. If that wasn't true, they would not survive. CMRs are operating in many states.

In addition to the digital reporting system and CMR reporters, the "system" in Hennepin County includes the judges, the courtroom/judicial clerks, and the attorneys. I witnessed them all working together to assist in the capture of an accurate record.

The Central Monitoring Room reporters include: (1) IPR steno reporters who are assigned to work in the courtroom writing steno; (2) steno reporters who no longer write steno for various reasons who primarily work in the CMR; and (3) a handful of electronic reporters, who primarily work in the CMR and are periodically assigned in the courtroom. When not assigned to a courtroom, the IPR stenos work in the CMR where they digitally report and write notes.

Unfortunately there are still the steno versus electronic reporter issues that cause some tension. Hopefully that will resolve in time since digital reporting continues to expand -- especially in the courts. There are benefits and drawbacks to both methods and plenty of opportunity for both in the courtrooms.

This is just a brief summary of my experience in the Hennepin County Central Monitoring Room. I worked there for two days and handled lightly-scheduled courtrooms. I experienced a small slice of what they do every day. I was impressed and now I am less terrified!

Hennepin County is hiring. If you are interested click here. While it refers to seeking stenographic reporters, electronic reporters will be considered.


Margaret Ann Morgan has worked as an official court reporter for the Third Judicial District in Rochester, Minnesota since 1994. She has served on various AAERT committees, is a past AAERT board member, vice president, and president.

 

Margaret Ann Morgan, CER, CET

Margaret.Morgan@courts.state.mn.us

 

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