I had two chances last month to personally witness the power of the court reporter.
The Humble Court Reporter
Court reporters are the most mild-mannered people you ever want to meet. They remind me of court clerks and librarians — just there to serve, to do a job, to help the courts function properly. A court reporter is a transcriptionist trained to recognize legal terms and citations. They carry a little suitcase with a typewriter inside. There is a dedicated spot for the court reporter in every courtroom, and they can set up in a tiny corner of a judge’s chambers if need be. A court reporter speaks in court only when spoken to, or when required by law, or when it’s necessary to stop people from speaking over each other (which makes a hearing hard to transcribe). Most are notary publics, and many are certified by the National Court Reporting Association, one of the state reporting boards, or the U.S. Court Reporters Association (serving federal courts).
No one in court feels threatened by a court reporter. But that steno machine is a different animal altogether. That machine produces the only official record of what transpired at a hearing. Somehow the presence of that little typewriter transforms a raving lunatic on the bench into someone who actually wants to make a ruling that can stand up on appeal. Because we know the one thing a judge hates most is being reversed on appeal. But since the chances of that happening without a hearing transcript are close to zero, judges do whatever they want in the absence of a court reporter. So about last month…
The Power of a Court Reporter #1
In the first, a low-dollar debt collection case in magistrate court, it turned out there was no need for the hearing. The case had been pending forever and the plaintiff hadn’t filed anything in nearly three years. So the defendant filed and served notice that the case wasn’t being prosecuted. That notice, required by statute, is designed to give a plaintiff a chance to file something — really anything — that will move the case forward and show the court it’s still active. In this case, the plaintiff filed nothing for several months after being put on notice. And so the defendant moved to dismiss the case for failure to prosecute, and she set the matter down for hearing.
The statute mandated dismissal if the plaintiff failed to file anything within five days of the hearing. So the defendant prepared an order for the judge’s signature and attached it to a nice letter reminding the judge of the statutory mandate. Now you gotta understand something here. Self-represented litigants aren’t supposed to defeat lawyers. What would the world come to if that were allowed? The five-day deadline preceding the hearing came and went. But instead of following the clear legal requirement to dismiss the case, the judge refused to sign the order or cancel the hearing. Why, you might ask? Did she want to give the plaintiff’s lawyer one last chance to file something, in open court? Did she want to bully the defendant into giving the plaintiff more time? Did she want to ignore the law and deny the motion without reason? Or did she simply want to lay eyes on the rare pro se litigant who knew how to bury a dead case?
We’ll never know, because the defendant brought a court reporter to the hearing, at which time all foolishness was put to rest. As per usual, the court reporter arrived early, but the bailiff had locked the door after her to block others from the courtroom. Litigants in several cases waited outside as the hearing time passed. Finally, the bailiff peeked out and asked the defendant, “Did you bring a court reporter?” She indicated that she had. We were all then allowed inside, and the defendant’s case was heard first. The lawyer who’d dragged her into court many years before had chosen not to show, so the judge had little choice:
Well. I’m not sure why we’re here. This case is dismissed with prejudice!
Tell this story the next time a judge starts crying about pro se litigants wasting the court’s time.
The Power of a Court Reporter #2
In the other case, a foreclosure defendant had filed a counterclaim against the bank, but without paying the required filing fee. I guess the bank felt that was unfair since they’d had no trouble paying their filing fee. So they moved to dismiss the counterclaim unless the defendant could pay the clerk several hundred dollars immediately. The counterclaim had been pending for several months and the plaintiff had been unable to get it dismissed. So they ambushed the defendant by setting the matter for hearing just 10 days after filing their motion. The defendant moved to strike the hearing, asking only for more time to respond. But the court denied the motion. The hearing would be held without the defendant’s response. If you don’t know, now you do: That’s judge-speak for “We need a hearing for me to rule against you, but I’ve already made up my mind.”
At the hearing, the judge listened patiently as the plaintiff’s lawyer moaned about the defendant’s failure to pay fees. When he finished, the judge asked the defendant plainly, “Well did you pay the fees?” The defendant answered in the negative and began to explain, but the judge wanted none of it. “There’s no ‘ifs, ands or buts’ about it. You either pay the fees in five days, or I have to dismiss your claim.” The defendant had brought a court reporter, and she was typing every word. So the defendant asked the judge defiantly if argument on the matter was permitted. The judge blinked and started to speak. But then she glanced at the court reporter and thought better of it.
The defendant began describing case law to support the argument:
- that the bank had no standing to raise the issue because fees were for the clerk’s benefit only, and the clerk had accepted the filing with a payment arrangement for the fees;
- that a state appellate court had reversed a judge who’d dismissed a claim for failure to pay fees;
- and that the public policy of the state’s courts was to hear issues on their merits rather than dismiss them on procedural missteps like payment of fees.
The judge never looked at the defendant during this argument, which took several minutes. When she asked the plaintiff’s lawyer to respond, he mumbled that the counterclaim gave his client standing and that even if it didn’t, the judge should make the defendant pay anyway. And then he complained that he hadn’t had time to review the case law and come up with a proper response. He’d been ambushed on his own ambush.
This hearing had been set only to hear the issue of fees, and the plaintiff had clearly lost the argument. But instead of denying the plaintiff’s motion, or delaying a ruling to study the law, the judge ordered that the issue would be re-argued in 30 days if the defendant still hadn’t paid the fees. Tell this story too the next time a judge starts crying about how pro se litigants waste the court’s time.
No Court Reporter? No Justice.
Pro tip: Don’t get upset if a judge appears to be doing something other than listening as you argue your case. When a court reporter is present, chances are the judge is reading your words on a computer screen as the court reporter types them. He wants to read what the appellate court will read should you choose to appeal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hUrZ4b6xwc I can’t stress this enough:
Never attend a hearing without a court reporter. Your judge might be in a good mood, or not. You want justice, a ruling based on law. But without a court reporter, you’re likely to get more mood than law. And without a transcript, there’s probably nothing you can do if things don’t go your way.
Have you hired a court reporter? What was your experience? Share in the comments below.