Between 2003 and 2006, Connecticut’s Judicial Branch was developing an increasingly dreadful public image, with revelations of an arcane “super-secret” file system, courtroom signs that warned “No note-taking” and a Supreme Court chief justice’s manipulation of a controversial decision’s release for political gain.
In response to the crisis, interim Chief Justice David Borden and then-Gov. Jodi Rell both appointed blue-ribbon committees to dig out what was rotten in the state of the Judicial Branch, focusing on court openness and public understanding.
The mission of court transparency had not been accomplished in 2007, when Chase T. Rogers took the helm as chief justice. She created scores of specific task force groups to try to bring the court out of the Dark Ages. The state's judiciary had been ignoring the information needs of the general public, maintaining its status as the least-understood branch of government.
One of the worst boondoggles in the court system has always been the official recording of trials. This job fell to a mix of unionized court stenographers and “monitors” who operated tape machines. Their salaries ranged from over $100,000 a year to just $14.50 an hour.
At the high end, the most credentialed court reporters produced stenographic notes from a machine that fed out cryptic abbreviations, usually modified by each individual stenographer. They would subsequently earn a per-page fee to translate and transcribe. In extreme cases where the stenographer was on leave, a second stenographer would have to decipher the glossary of unique abbreviations, in some instances this cost the Judicial Branch an estimated $100,000 for one trial. And that was before the two sides in the case began to buy transcripts, for the appeal record, at costs that hit tens of thousands of dollars per party.
Overnight transcriptions came at a premium of over $6 per page, and the more economical rates—over $2 per page—were burdened by long wait times.
In 2010, a task force headed by former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz recommended that the Judicial Branch switch to digital recording as the most reliable transcription. At the time, the technology existed to make court audio recordings available on short order and at low cost. Now, finally, the Judicial Branch is offering digital MP3 files of Connecticut trials on compact disk for $20 per trial day.
This is a huge step forward for court accountability and transparency. It’s still too slow to be much use to news reporter on breaking-news events, but a faster turnaround may be in the works. Announcing the new policy on Nov. 1, Patrick Carroll, the chief court administrator, said, “We have been working for some time on this initiative and had hoped to be able to provide the audio to the requester electronically. That is still our goal, but, in the meantime, we will be burning the audio file onto a CD.”
Judicial Branch spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Hebert said the recordings will not be redacted or edited. (Recordings are not being offered for proceedings that are not open to the general public, such as juvenile offender or termination of parental rights hearings.)
Connecticut’s Constitution grandly proclaims that “courts shall be open.” This was basically only true for those who could manage to sit through the trial or be willing to pay the staggering price to read the official trial transcription. This makes very little sense. The official version is necessary to be sure that appeals are based on a reliable, agreed-on record, but only a small fraction of trials are appealed.
Beyond the parties and daily news outlets, many other groups have an interest in what happens in our courts: historians, criminal justice scholars, the insurance and risk industry and even TV and movie script writers. For them, a high-quality audio recording is gold—capturing inflection, emotion and tone.
The press release announcing the advent of economical trial transcripts was issued without fanfare. But it is a true milestone in the advancement of openness and accountability in Connecticut’s courts. We can now only pray that it won’t take another 10 years for the next step: timely electronic downloads of trial audio, for the benefit of the lawyers, the litigants, the press and the public.