State court recording monitors object to Judicial Branch plan to outsource

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Sotonye Otunba-Payne spends her days, and many of her nights and weekends, listening to recordings of court testimony and producing printed transcripts — word-for-word records of the proceedings that serve as the official court record.

Every case she covers in New Haven Superior Court is different, and most of them involve complex terminology. Over the past weekend, and on the recent state holiday, she spent 26 hours producing a 193-page transcript about aquaculture and the seaweed industry.

Otunba-Payne, who has been working for the state Judicial Branch since 1998, is one of 200 court recording monitors. She's also a regional vice president of their union, AFSCME Local 749. The court monitors and the union went on high alert recently after learning their employer is positioning itself to outsource the production of court transcripts once the current contract expires in June 2021.

The court monitors, who the union says earn between $43,000 and $57,000 a year, say they supplement their salary by as much as one-third by producing transcripts and rely on the funds to make ends meet. Though they are state employees, the transcript work is treated as a separate enterprise.

The court monitors are considered self-employed for purposes of producing transcripts. They charge private entities $3 to $10 a page, plus state tax, to produce transcripts, with the price depending on how quickly the transcript is needed. State and municipal employees pay $2 to $6.75 a page. A monitor who produced a transcript for a recent trial said she earned $11 an hour.

Otunba-Payne said she took the job understanding she would have to work extra hours for extra pay. "We thought it was job security," she said during a recent interview at a New London coffee shop. "This is what I used to send my children to college."

The court monitors and union representatives also say that the integrity of the official court record is at risk if contractors who haven't been in court listening to the proceedings, and are unfamiliar with the players and terminology, are producing transcripts. The court monitors record the testimony on a digital audio recording system called For The Record, making notes as they go along to assist them as they produce a transcript. They fear somebody who hasn't heard the testimony, and made note of what was happening in the courtroom, would have trouble distinguishing who is speaking and being aware of other nuances.

"It's not about jobs. It's not about money," said Chuck DellaRocco, president of AFSCME Local 749. "It's about the integrity of the court. They're jumping off the cliff into something that's very scary."

Otunba-Payne said she familiarizes herself with cases before going into court and is willing to help out when someone asks her to play back a portion of testimony. She cited problems in Massachusetts, where some transcripts are produced by contractors. She said a Massachusetts lawyer she knows told her she doesn't bother ordering transcripts anymore because of inaccuracies.

The Connecticut Judicial Branch has taken steps in recent years to make its court proceedings more accessible, transparent and cost-efficient, implementing some of the recommendations from a 2010 report by the Committee on Court Recording Monitors and Court Reporters and a 2014 auditor's report.

The 2010 committee recommended Connecticut switch to digital audio recording of judicial proceedings, outsource transcript production and not allow court reporters and monitors to produce transcripts for private parties on state time.

The branch phased out the higher paid court stenographers, who used shorthand and their own equipment to produce transcripts and who could leave the courthouse during work hours and still be paid if they weren't covering a case. Some work on private transcripts still take place during work hours, though monitors say the majority of their work is done when they're off the clock.

The committee report noted that the cost of acquiring transcripts could be prohibitive for people who are representing themselves and others. In November 2018, the branch began offering audio recordings of court procedures to the public for $20 a day per case, but the recordings, which are provided on a CD or as an MP3 file, are not available for a week after an order is placed.

"It is certainly our goal to be open and transparent and provide as much information as we can," said Melissa Farley, executive director of external affairs for the Judicial Branch. "We have been talking about making those audio recordings available for a very long time. We had hoped we would be able to do it proficiently. We ran into technology issues, and it's a manual process right now to provide the audio."

The accessibility of audio recordings could mean less side work for the court recording monitors.

"We can negotiate that," said DellaRocco, the union president.

The union is more concerned that the Judicial Branch, which has submitted language in a court operations bill that proposes assuming the authority over court monitors that is now in the hands of lawmakers, could outsource their work and eliminate or reclassify their positions.

Farley, the external affairs director, said this week that she was aware of the union concerns and that the branch recognizes the valuable contributions of the court monitors.

"We wanted to position the branch so that if we needed to expand the pool of people who could produce the transcripts, we could," she said. "The decision about exactly what we may want to do may change."

k.florin@theday.com

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