Stanislaus County court reporter masters her skills to maintain the record

03/30/2014 7:33 PM

03/30/2014 11:15 PM

Florence Ortiz can keep track of everything that is said. She’s mastered the skill during 35 years as a court reporter.

Even when she’s tasked with a lengthy murder trial involving four defendants, Ortiz never misses a word. Well, if she does, she’ll just stop the court proceeding and ask the speaker to repeat what was said. But that only occasionally happens.

Like the other court reporters at Stanislaus Superior Court, Ortiz has undergone extensive training to record everything said in court.

These court transcripts are of vital importance to the judicial process, especially in criminal cases. The transcripts are used in appeal hearings; attorneys rely on them to prepare questions for witnesses or arguments for the jury; and judges use them to make crucial rulings.

Ortiz has diverse court reporter experience, handling civil and criminal cases, as well as family and juvenile courts. She’s worked in depositions, including intellectual property, medical practice and environmental impact cases. She once wrote down everything famed stuntman Evel Knievel said in a deposition in a personal injury case.

She has worked in courtrooms in Tuolumne, Santa Clara, Merced and San Benito counties. She’s worked in Stanislaus County since 2007 and has been assigned to Judge Marie Silveira’s courtroom for the past year. The Modesto Bee asked Ortiz some questions about her job.

How do you prepare for a lengthy trial?

Most times you don’t get much notice. A case may be set for trial, but then may get continued at the last minute. So, a reporter may not want to spend valuable time preparing only to have the trial continued or the defendant pleading out. When a trial is confirmed to begin, I will look through the file to find out what are the charges, for names of witnesses, and legal pleadings from the attorneys to get an idea what the case is about. I create a trial title page as well as a job dictionary in my reporter software where I will enter the names of the parties, their attorneys, and any names and words that are particular to the case. I also create speaker identifications for each of the attorneys and the judge.

How do you keep track of who is speaking? Can you tell just by hearing someone’s voice?

A speaker identification is assigned to each attorney who will be speaking in the form of a combination of keystrokes on the steno keyboard that is defined in the software to translate into English as a new paragraph, the speaker’s name in all capital letters, followed by a colon. So every time someone speaks, the reporter must stroke the speaker identification before writing down what they say. We are trained very early on in reporting school to differentiate speakers, first by live dictation, then by practicing on recorded materials. It’s easiest when the parties are opposite sexes; you don’t have to look up to see who is talking.

When the courtroom is busy with a lot of different cases, how do you tune out whispers in the audience and other disruptive noises?

Courtrooms are extremely busy and can be noisy, and most times it’s the attorneys who are the noisiest. Reporters are trained to tune out unnecessary sounds and to home in on the important parties and speakers. Sometimes a look at the bailiff will let them know to quiet things down. Actually, the human ear is the most remarkable tool a reporter has. In most instances, we can actually discern and separate the speaker’s words out from the chaos around just by concentrating on that speaker. Most times, the judge is the one person a reporter hears the clearest.

What goes through your mind when you hear emotional or crucial testimony? For instance, a witness describing the death of a loved one or testimony that’s crucial to prove someone’s guilt or innocence.

Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s important to maintain an unbiased, unemotional presence. I tend to keep my peripheral vision on the witness but avoid eye contact. But as the record maker, we understand the importance of preserving the testimony, so we just concentrate on what’s being said and writing it down.

Do you do any exercises with your hands to prevent injuries from all that typing?

I don’t do any special exercises for my hands other than stretching and shaking them out at the end of a long day of testimony. I do use a professional scopist to transcribe my work; it’s the one thing I do utilize to prevent overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel and tendinitis. It’s the constant sitting and keeping my arms up at the keyboard that will make me stiff and tired, so I usually go out for a run and some stretches on my lunch hour. It really refreshes me.

Some people ask you why not just tape-record what’s said in court? What’s your response?

Reporters are trained to just kind of slip into the woodwork, seen but not heard. But their presence plays a vital role in the courtroom in that we monitor and clarify the record as we go. We sort out the necessary from the extraneous noises. We report in-chambers confidential proceedings, as well as open court proceedings, and maintain the record from upward of five years to life. We purchase and maintain all our own equipment and take on the responsibility to ensure the record is maintained and preserved. We are more reliable than a tape recorder.

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