While many Americans are out looking for work, Jane Worthen Eaton has more paying assignments than she can handle.
Able to type 280 words per minute despite faltering fingers, Ms. Eaton is a card-carrying member of what was once a male fraternity of "silent men" hulking in judges' shadows, typing transcripts.
But the fraternity has shrunk to one of America's forgotten professions, even as demand for court reporters and real-time typists has grown - leaving superior courts from Chicago to Charlotte scrambling. Nationwide, court administrators are canceling depositions, even postponing criminal jury trials, because they can't find enough limber-fingered folk to man the little black instruments with the weird keys.
These are heady times for the torchbearers of a profession whose first known practitioner was Roman secretary Marcus Tullius Tiro. In 63 B.C., he used a metal stylus to transcribe an oration by Cato. Today's court reporters are more likely to transcribe Kato Kaelin than Cato - but they can often make well over $100,000 a year.
Increasingly, though, the reporter's success is the court's misery. "There are now quite dire shortages of court reporters," says Denise "Mitz" Drill, a 20-year stenographer in North Mankato, Minn. "It's having an impact because the only person besides the judge who has no personal interest in the trial is the court reporter, and they guard the record."
While the fields of TV captioning and "real-time" transcription for lawyers and deaf people are growing, enrollment in stenography schools has seen an eight-year slide. Johnson & Wales College in Rhode Island graduated its last steno class in May - as nearby Massachusetts slogs through one of the biggest reporter shortages in the nation, up there with Virginia, the Carolinas, and California.
With gigs ranging from PBS documentaries to juvenile-court hearings, there are some 75,000 super-typists in America today - not nearly enough, experts say, to fill a growing demand among lawyers for "real-time" documents - not to mention all television programs, which the FCC demands be captioned by 2006.
"The general perception in the public is that we are an antiquated profession. But, in fact, there's a huge demand for reporters," says Peter Wacht, a spokesman for the National Court Reporters Association in Vienna, Va. But that demand is draining public courtrooms, most of which pay about half of what a freelancer can make working for private lawyers and TV companies.
In Noth Carolina's Gaston County Superior Court, a judge recently had to delay a criminal trial for want of a spare reporter. A civil trial was delayed for six months for the same reason. Canceled depositions are a daily bane for hundreds of lawyers across the Florida panhandle. In Boston, depositions and appeals hearings get bumped regularly, says Robert Panneton, a court administrator at Superior Court in Suffolk County. "It happens everyday," he complains.
In North Carolina, there are 99 court reporters - not quite enough for one in each of the state's 100 counties. In Massachusets, the higher courts have to make do with 52 official reporters - for 82 full-time judges.
Today, most court reporters are middle-aged women, many of them with over 20 years of experience - a tough legacy to follow. "I think it will take at least 15 years to get our ranks back," says Linda Bland, the proprietress of courtreport- ingathome.com, a correspondence course in Tallahassee, Fla.
Faced with that, the National Court Reporters' Association is hoping Congress will throw $70 million later this month toward training new "real-time" reporters. Part of that money would go toward promoting the profession to laid-off white-collar workers.
"It's an important, fun, and challenging job, and sometimes we scare our doctors because we know a little too much about a lot of things," says Ms. Eaton in Raleigh, winding down from a 200-page deposition.
And, surprisingly to some, court reporters are expected to remain a human link of dexterity and intelligence, impossible to supplant with mere machines. One expensive voice-recognition (VR) system, for instance, tends to not pick up short words, says Ms. Bland. "A word like 'not' is very important," she says. "There's a big difference between: 'I did not see him shoot him,' and 'I did see him shoot him.' "
Still, the work can be excruciating. Indeed, many potential reporters can't make the necessary jump from conscious typing at 160 words a minute to the kind of subconscious transcription necessary to break the 225-words a minute barrier - and earn a license. "Sometimes I leave work and I can't compose a sentence because my brain is so dead, and my body feels like somebody beat me up with a baseball bat," says Ms. Drill, the North Mankato reporter.
The odd-looking stenography machine still has the corner on the professional scribe biz. In fact the machine, invented by Belleville, Ill., reporter Miles Bartholomew in 1879, has been improved chiefly by adding a computer port. Learning how to work it well, say seasoned stenographers, is like learning to play the piano.
"Ever since they developed voice recording, the soothsayers were saying this profession was going to be dead," says Deerwood, Minn., court reporter Rick Stirewalt. But Mr. Stirewalt has trouble imagining a VR computer taking on one of his latest assignments - unraveling a web of Hebrew and Japanese accents during a software dispute in Israel. In fact, he says, "you need the human filter to get into the mind of the witness and to replicate his intention on paper."
"It's not a science; court reporting is an art."