Demanding training prepares Arkansas court reporters to stay afloat in a sea of words

The four court reporters of the Eastern District of Arkansas are (from left) Chief Court Reporter Karen Dellinger, Elaine Hinson, Valarie Flora and Stephen Franklin. The four have a combined 123 years of experience in court reporting. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Dale Ellis)
The four court reporters of the Eastern District of Arkansas are (from left) Chief Court Reporter Karen Dellinger, Elaine Hinson, Valarie Flora and Stephen Franklin. The four have a combined 123 years of experience in court reporting. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Dale Ellis)

They are as common a sight in the courtroom as judges, as vital to the administration of justice as lawyers, and a necessary component to the justice system as they paradoxically play an almost invisible role in the same legal proceedings of which they are arguably the most active participant.

They are the court reporters -- guardians of the judicial record who are required to maintain a laser focus during legal proceedings in order to capture a verbatim transcript that becomes the official record of the court.

Although modern court reporting makes much use of technology, it owes its existence to a Roman slave -- Marcus Tullius Tiro -- scribe to the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero. It was Tiro who, sometime around 63 B.C., developed a system of notation symbols and abbreviations consisting of over 4,000 signs that is considered the forerunner to modern stenography. Just as the development of shorthand revolutionized dictation by enabling people to take notes more quickly using symbols, development of the stenotype machine in the late 1800s revolutionized stenography by boosting the speed at which stenographers could capture speech.

Modern stenotype machines contain microprocessors and LCD screens where the shorthand abbreviations appear in English almost simultaneously as they are typed into the machine. Using phonetic spelling techniques, as the reporters type the words are displayed on a laptop computer in front of them and are also transmitted to a monitor on the judge's bench in real time, allowing the judge to read an instantaneous transcript of the proceeding.

In the Eastern District of Arkansas, headquartered in the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse in Little Rock, four court reporters provide the official court record that is generated by the district's six district judges and six magistrate judges. The four -- Karen Dellinger, Elaine Hinson, Valarie Flora and Stephen Franklin -- have a combined 123 years experience as certified court reporters.

Commenting on the origins of court reporting, Flora said many people were unaware that the position of scribe "is the second oldest profession."

"The oldest is farming," she said quickly, with a laugh.

Flora, a member of the Arkansas Board of Certified Court Reporter Examiners, is a relative newcomer to the federal court, having been with the Eastern District of Arkansas since July 2021. She received her certification, however, in 1987 and has extensive experience in Arkansas state courts and doing freelance work.

She is also a virtual fountain of trivia about the profession, noting that among notable scribes of the past are none other than Charles Dickens, who, according to the Poynter Institute, was considered the best parliamentary reporter in England when he was in his early 20s. Dickens later went on to publish 15 novels, including "Oliver Twist," "A Christmas Carol" and "A Tale of Two Cities," as well as five novellas and hundreds of short stories and nonfiction articles.

Dellinger, the district's chief court reporter, was certified in 1996 and came to the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2008. Hinson, the longest-serving of the four, was certified as a court reporter 38 years ago in 1985 and has been with the federal court in Arkansas since 1996. Franklin, who came to the Eastern District of Arkansas at the end of 2020, had served as a court reporter in the Southern District of Florida since 2001.

To become a federal court reporter requires at least four years' experience as a court reporter and a Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) certification from the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). The RPR test consists of two components, Dellinger said, a 100-question written exam covering knowledge of federal rules, ethics, grammar and the law to name a few, and a skills test composed of a five-minute question and answer session that requires the applicant to meet or exceed 225 words per minute with a 95% accuracy rate. Dellinger said the next level is Registered Merit Reporter, which has a skills test requiring the applicant to meet or exceed 260 words per minute with a 95% accuracy rate.

"That's hold on to your britches time," Dellinger said with a laugh. "It's so fast. It feels like you're barely hanging on."

Dellinger, Hinson and Flora said the acknowledged champion in their field is Mark Kislingbury of Houston, Texas, who, at the NCRA summer convention on July 30, 2004, achieved a record of 360 words per minute with an accuracy rate of 97.23%, according to Guinness World Records. Almost 19 years later, Kislingbury's record still stands.

Kislingbury is the founder of the Mark Kislingbury Academy of Court Reporting in Houston, which Flora said is considered one of the top schools for court reporting in the country.

"He's a beast," Flora said.

"He's like the super hero of court reporting," Dellinger said.

"He's our Shaquille O'Neal," Hinson cut in. "Our Michael Jordan. He's a superstar."

Training, they said, takes on average two to three years to complete and can cost as much as $25,000 a year or more. That's for those who complete the course. The attrition rate is staggering.

"We've been told the dropout rate is about 90%," Hinson said, then quipped, "and they told us the divorce rate is about half that."

All said the profession is not a good fit for anyone looking for a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday type of career. Court reporters are responsible for transcribing their work into verbatim transcripts within 90 days for the public record. But, early transcripts can be ordered on notice as short as the same day -- for a fee -- and often are by attorneys needing a daily trial record, which often requires working after hours, on weekends, or even on federal holidays if that's what it takes to get the transcripts out to those who need them.

On top of that, in federal court, reporters purchase their own stenotype machines, computers, software and other items, which can add up to several thousands of dollars.

In addition, Hinson said, to maintain certification court reporters must complete 30 units of continuing education credits each three-year period.

"If you let that go you have to re-certify," she said.

Regardless, however, all three said they love their profession and have never regretted their career path.

Hinson said her first career inclination was to go to work with her sister in finance but that soon changed.

"I took a semester at UALR and decided I needed to find a different route," Hinson said.

"My aunt was a court reporter at the Air Force Academy and my best friend was going to court reporting school in Austin. I started looking into that and decided I needed to do English instead of numbers."

Dellinger said she decided to give it a try out of curiosity.

"I don't know," she said. "I thought I'd try it and we had a program at my school already, so. Then I started and it just clicked."

"Career day at high school," said Flora. "One of the local training academies came to school, I read the brochure and thought yeah, I'll check into it. I started with 40 in my freshman class and I finished with six."

Court reporting, they said, is definitely not for everybody. In addition to the hours, court reporters must spend hours at a time at their stenotype machines listening closely to catch and capture every word said as it is said. That process, they said, is demanding physically as well as mentally.

"It is, it's physically exhausting," Flora said. "We have to switch out every two to three hours, especially during trials, because it is so intense."

"If it does click, though, you'll love it," Dellinger said, with Hinson and Flora nodding in agreement.

"You have to love the English language," Hinson said. "Words."

"You have to be almost a complete nerd about it," Flora cut in. "Lose sleep over a comma."

  photo  Karen Dellinger, chief court reporter for the Eastern District of Arkansas, prepares her stenotype machine in preparation of a court hearing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Dale Ellis)
 
 
  photo  Stenotype machine of the type used by federal court reporters in Arkansas.