Court reporters, the position within the judicial system that takes spoken word and creates a written record from which so much is gleaned and referenced. It’s an essential job here at Superior Court, and our court reporters are some of the best in the industry. With being the busiest trial court in the state, they have to be.
It’s a job that not a lot of people get to hear about, but they should. Which is why we were so excited to feature interviews with four of our full-time court reporters, who collectively have been working in some way as reporters for 151 years, and as court reporters at Superior Court of Fulton County for over 70 years.
Ms. Ionie Taylor, who started her career in 1986, came to us as a per-diem “floater” reporter in 2001, and became a full-time court reporter in 2007. She’s since then worked with several judges and is currently the court reporter for Judge Krause. She previously worked in another state where she did freelancing, and then was introduced to court work in Atlanta when she was involved in depositions and court tribunals for Fulton County.
Q: What do you really enjoy about your job?
A: Working full-time for a specific judge you get to “come to work to a little family every day”, SOMETHING she says she really enjoys about her job. Being an independent reporter previously, she said this “could be very lonely.”
Q: What’s made you stay at Fulton County for all these years? What are some of the perks and benefits you’d want people to know about that are considering this type of career here?
A: “I liked the fact that I didn’t have to shop around for health insurance anymore and the premium was better, and the eye and dental.”
“I liked the consistency of working with the same people…and working with the same judge you get to learn their procedures, their routine, their pattern of speaking, which is important to us, because all that incorporates into creating a great transcript at the end of the day.”
On what has brought her the most professional growth since she’s been at Superior Court, Ms. Taylor mentioned that dealing with the public and the community, the emails and phone calls asking questions, asking for assistance, that that has really taught her to deal with the public. She said it helped her develop public communication skills and is able to reflect how she could have done or said something better.
Some people may think that court reporters don’t directly interact with the community that much; but she explained they actually do because as people email or call looking for a transcript, people may be going through a difficult time, or they may be asking different questions about the court process and how to do certain things related to their case. While this might not be part of their job per se, they do get the opportunity to go the extra mile sometimes she indicated.
We all recognize that being a court reporter is a challenging yet rewarding position, and I was curious what she found to be the most challenging thus far. She said that during court she may hear many different dialects and that during this small challenge she must refocus her attention, which ultimately challenges her. She noted something interesting about this, that about 5 minutes in, she starts to “become that language” and she starts to pick up on ways certain words are said.
Whenever we start a new job, in order to be really successful from the start, we usually have a person or people who help guide us in the nuances of an office. I asked Ms. Taylor if there were people who helped her when she first came in and the importance of that. She mentioned that Ms. Geraldine Glover, now a federal court reporter, was a major go to person for her, as well as two of our other interviewees, Cheryl Gilliam and Melanie Fisher. Now that she’s been here this long, they go to each other as seasoned colleagues still supporting one another.
She remembers “her very first ‘daily’, which was over 300 pages, on a major court case that ended up on Court TV, that the transcript was needed the next day, and she remembered that Ms. Glover called her and asked if she needed any help.” This small gesture has always stuck with her. While dailies are rare here at Fulton they can happen, and they do get paid for the additional work via the rate that the legislature has established.
“We love what we do and we love the challenges…because there’s a self-fulfillment at the end of the day”
You can tell how much someone enjoys their job when they take leadership roles in it. And that’s exactly what Ms. Taylor has done. Not only has she been the chairperson for the court reporters, she was also a guest speaker at the Stenocat Users Network Annual Convention. Many of our longtime court reporters have taken leadership roles at some point in their career, as you’ll note throughout these interviews.
Q: When they put out a job listing for a Court Reporter position, is that salary an estimate or something set by the legislature?
A: “Fulton County has set a salary rate, but we do have two parts to how we’re compensated. We have the salary part that the county pays, but we also get paid for the transcripts we produce. They set it up that way because we are a neutral party in the court system. That’s one way of keeping it neutral; it’s not Fulton County transcripts, the Legislature wanted to make sure that when we produce a transcript. the judges, the attorneys, we’re not influenced by any of them. That’s why they also receive a 1099, for the self-employment transcript part. On the other side, they officially hire someone for the position to ensure there is an active reporter available for each judge, so they can hold them accountable to be there when they need them.”
Q: How many transcripts a year do you think you produce in this busy court?
A: “I always tend to be in busy courts, I would say on a yearly basis I probably average between 30,000 to 40,000 pages a year, that’s on the busy end.”
Mr. Carl Forté, who previously served with former Chief Judge Brasher, and who is now with Judge Farmer, has been a court reporter for 44 years, and with Superior Court for 10. He freelanced for 34 years prior to coming on board here and was also a captioner for two local TV stations and CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) provider, which works with the deaf and hearing-impaired community. He provided CART services for Congressman John Lewis during the congressman’s speaking engagements and meet & greets.
After completing a project for a local freelance firm, he came over to the county after providing a real-time demonstration for judges a at a state conference. It was there that Judge Adams took note of his work and he was invited by to apply for a position with the court.
Q: Being freelance and independently employed is much different than working a government position, what was your reason for switching over?
A: “I didn’t need the freedom as much and was traveling a lot as a real-time reporter. Covering depositions in the state and across the country, I grew tired of living out of a suitcase.” A government job comes with benefits and a steady salary, and is based in one place.
For the last 5 years he’s been mostly working on Family Court transcripts with the judges he’s served under.
Mr. Forté is a bit of a specialist when it comes to real-time court reporting. He is nationally certified as a real-time court reporter and captioner/CART provider. He had been working as a court reporter for 10-15 years before he took another two years to become real-time certified and a captioner for tv. While you don’t get a pay increase for this certification, it provides a valued service to our judges.
Q: Do you ever do telework as a court reporter?
A: “We have reporters who are assigned to specific judges and a pool of floaters. On a sometimes basis, those in chambers are able to finish some afternoon duties remotely.” However, most of his work is in the courtroom, which was a preference for both him and Judge Farmer. He said this actually works better for him because even if it is a Zoom proceeding, if there are any tech issues, he’s on site to quickly address them.
I’m always curious about the professional growth someone who’s been in a career a long time still receives. He mentioned that when another reporter calls him to troubleshoot a tech issue, he appreciates being able to learn something new and interact with IT. Also, working with the same people for a number of years in the chamber staff…while they can’t be cross-trained as they are experts in their fields, he said they are able to help out each other and can back one another up sometimes.
“Everybody works together in the office to keep the cases moving. While there’s really no finish line because the cases keep coming, you do your best to keep things going and keep the deadlines tight; and that it takes everybody working together.”
“We’re in tough situations all the time. In courtrooms we have challenges from trying to hear people, to people speaking on top of each other, to people speaking fast…we respectfully interrupt. Before I let the record get away from me, I will speak up.”
In addition to what they do in court, they do have a good amount of admin work to do. He also works with the DA’s office to certify evidence to be sent to the appellate court.
Q: What in your life, or what influence, made you want to move into public service work?
A: “As a freelance reporter, you only get pieces of the case, you don’t hear what happens to it. In a court you get the whole shebang.” Mr. Forté mentioned one thing that had a profound impact on his decision; he was good friends with Julie Brandau, the court reporter that was tragically killed during court in 2005 along with Judge Barnes and Sergeant Teasley. He and Ms. Brandau had started early in their careers at the same firm, sharing a cubicle at one point. After that happened, he wanted to give court a try on a fulltime basis. He said he likes to come in every day and walk by the pictures of his fallen colleagues and pay honor for their service.
I found that last part interesting, noting that a lot of people ‘run away from the fire’ after a tragedy like that, instead of running towards it.
Ms. Cheryl Gilliam, official court reporter for Judge Thomas A. Cox, Jr., has been in this field for 38 years and with Fulton County for 21. She started off her career early in life, going to court reporting school in Los Angeles right out of high school. Though admittedly, she didn’t care much for court-specific work in those early years and chose instead to do freelance depositions and arbitrations, City Hall meetings and even school tribunals. “There are so many things you can do within this field, so many different avenues you can take.” Ms. Gilliam also worked for several small firms, as well as Traffic Court in Fulton County. She’s pretty much done it all.
While she was originally resistant to court reporting in the courts when she was younger, she tried it again as a per diem reporter and found out she rather enjoyed it. During this time, she worked for Clayton, Fulton, and Dekalb as well some of the smaller counties south of Metro Atlanta, but grew tired of the driving and really liked the people in Fulton, so she decided to put in an application. Unfortunately, this was during a hiring freeze, but she kept expressing her interest. For a year she was persistent, even calling the Deputy Court Administrator every Friday. Then finally, it opened back up and “the rest is history.”
Q: It seems like a lot of the court reporters that get in full-time, stay for many years. Is that what you’ve seen in the court?
A: “I think among the assigned reporters, that’s the case.”
She’s been assigned to only two judges since she’s been here full-time. For many years she was with Judge T. Jackson Bedford, Jr., now one of our Senior Judges, whom she keeps in touch with and considers a good friend. She’s been Judge Cox’s reporter since he came onto the bench.
Q: During your time here at the court, where have you had the most professional growth?
A: “I always seem to get into these positions of leadership. We’re licensed by the State of Georgia, so we have a board. I served on the Board of Court Reporting for two terms and was president of the GSRA serving as everything from Treasurer to President for several years and have been the head of the Fulton County Court Reporter Committee for several years as well. All of that experience has kept me abreast of what's going on. I’ve also had a lot of big cases, including the Brian Nichols case where I was the lead reporter. A case like that prepares you for just about anything in the courtroom.”
Ms. Gilliam also stressed the importance of keeping on top of technology as it changes and advances. “You have to keep changing with the times, you have to keep your equipment up to date, learn your court reporting software and attend seminars to better yourself.” She also does realtime, like many of our reporters, and said this has helped tremendously. Having first heard about it years ago, when carbon copy and typewriters were still the norm, “no one thought realtime would become the go-to.” Having like-minded court reporters around her also helped as they would trade tidbits on techniques and briefs as well as going to seminars.
Q: For a layperson, when someone is speaking into the machine, is that some type of voice court reporting?
A: “That’s voice writing. That has progressed tremendously as well over the years, but it wasn’t the norm back when I first started when it was mainly steno reporting. It actually took longer to learn steno, and generally one can finish school faster with voice writing.”
Q: Can you be a realtime reporter without being trained in steno?
A: Some voice writers can also do real-time, but generally it’s steno reporters doing it, at least here in Fulton County.
Q: Is realtime the final record?
A: “The realtime copy is almost like a rough draft, that is, not the final record. But it does enable the judge during court to look at the realtime record as it’s happening and can reference it during court. The final record, it’s a much longer process. The cleaner you write up front, the less work you have to do on the back end.” She tries to punctuate at the onset and put in as much as she can during her realtime work; in doing so she is able to produce her final record much quicker and easier. Being able to work with the same judge, in the same courtroom, you usually work with a lot of the same attorneys. When you recognize the same people, you know their names and the way they speak. She also does a lot of research to make sure she has the correct names of references and slang, such as guns or drug-related references. There are even websites that have all the drug names listed.
Google, Westlaw, and Odyssey are just some of the websites that reporters use on a daily basis.
Q: How many pages do you think you do a year on average?
A: “I did about 10,000 pages in criminal alone last year. That doesn’t include civil cases,” which she also does sometimes.
Q: What has been the most challenging for you personally?
A: “Compartmentalizing. You hear so many awful things that sometimes you just want to cry, get angry or sad. Some reporters may not be able to handle that part of the job and don’t always stay in court and may move on to other forms of court reporting like depositions or closed captioning.”
Q: What do you do to manage that emotional impact and not hold onto it when you leave the court and go into your personal life?
A: “I have beautiful things in my life and try to have fun; I love my family, I love my church, I’m in the choir, I love movies, I love music, reading, going for walks…I try to do things that bring joy into my life… and lift that cloud…When you edit and/or proof the transcripts, it does bring it all back, though. You have to do something else…or it will make you feel hopeless and bring you down.”
Q: Is there any advice you’d give someone who’s thinking about starting off in the field of court reporting”
A: “Spelling, grammar, punctuation are must-haves and being detailed oriented and self-motivated are very helpful…I also have a love of the law.” She was originally going to be a legal secretary in high school. She loved words and loved to read, do crossword puzzles and was a proficient typist and shorthand writer. The last week of high school her business teacher had taken note and told her she’d be a good court reporter. She’d only seen them on Perry Mason and grew up in South Central Los Angeles where court reporters weren't in abundance and she didn’t know any. But the teacher really encouraged her and there was a school nearby training court reporters. She had to take a spelling and typing test and was excited once she got accepted; even recalling buying her first machine, which was a manual machine back then. “If you learn to type, you’ll always have a job,” she told me. She went to school at night and worked in the daytime but had a job immediately at a deposition firm after she finished court reporting school.
She said even after she retires, she’d still come back to help out on a per diem basis. But there is the need to recruit new full-time court reporters, the next generation so to say, and we are actively hiring right now at Superior Court.
“It’s a challenging and great career, one that doesn’t necessarily require a full 4-year degree, and the high tuition costs associated with that, but still with the ability to earn a good salary and benefits.” Court reporting provides a good living for those who pay attention to detail and appreciate correct grammar. It’s probably why many people stay in it far longer than other careers.
Ms. Melanie Fisher, court reporter for Judge Henry Newkirk, has always had an interest in the criminal justice system and wanted to work in it in some way. It was just something she always seemed to know about herself; and it runs in the family, as her sister is also a freelance court reporter for a circuit of courts in another county. She’s been in the field since the early '80s, though did take a 10-year pause when her first son was born.
And she loves the work, expressing that being in court and making the record at the trials is part of the job she really enjoys. She’s met so many interesting people and even though there can be many sad cases, she knows this type of work is important.
She spent 16 months in school to obtain her credentials and is also now practicing realtime reporting, noting that she’s enjoyed learning new technologies despite any fears. At first, like many reporters, she started off freelancing for a firm before moving into a floater status at court; eventually being picked up as an assigned reporter to two different judges over the past 23 years.
Over the years she’s learned how to balance it all – three sons including one with special needs, and a full-time job within one of the busiest courts. Even when weekend work is needed, she manages to have a good work-life balance. She noted that while this workload may not be for everyone, she switched over to a government position because the steady income was highly appealing as opposed to freelance and she found working in the courts system very interesting.
Q: What advice would you give anyone thinking of pursuing this career?
A: “Take school seriously and have a good command of the machine you will use…it helps so much down the road.”