Court reporter serves as a ‘guardian of the record’

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Freelance court reporter Kara Van Dam enjoys hearing the stories from the community and helping people with her piece of the judicial process.

“It’s rewarding to have a job with a purpose,” she says. “As a ‘guardian of the record’ I know my work has an impact, however big or small, in someone's life as they navigate the judicial system.”

Van Dam is a Certified Electronic Recorder (CER). “I use the general term ‘court reporter’ for any of us charged with capturing the record and producing transcripts no matter the method. It’s easier for the general public to understand ‘court reporter’,” she says.

The method includes using recordings captured in a digital courtroom and typed out long-hand.

“Many courts that utilize digital recordings employ no CERs that are licensed to produce a transcript. That’s where us freelancers come in,” she says. “We use a computer and a foot pedal to control the playback software and type out everything said verbatim.”

She initially got into the field while also working as a paralegal.

“I always worked a second job or took classes while working for the law firm. When I got the opportunity to be trained as a court reporter I jumped at it,” she says. “It was a great way to earn extra money without having to leave the house for a second shift. It became my primary income source after I became a mom and allowed me the flexibility to be with my daughter. I couldn’t bear dropping her off in the mornings to go to the office.”

Van Dam now owns her own firm, Ace Transcripts, in Ann Arbor, primarily covering Washtenaw Trial Court and eight judges in Oakland County, as well as helping other jurisdictions.

“After COVID, my dear friend and mentor, Sandra Traskos, decided to close her firm after 17 years,” she says. “After losing court reporters and the looming opening of the flood gates of backlogged trials, she decided to move on. I still wasn’t ready to hang it up and wanted to continue the fight for an increased page rate and provide work for the CERs she used. I started Ace Transcripts in 2022, picking up the torch from Sandy. Working from home with a school-aged daughter was ideal for me. I volunteered with Girl Scouts, at the school, and a local non-profit youth dance company.”

The computer dominates her life every day, with taking orders, retrieving recordings, sending estimates, prepping documents for filing, billing, disbursing assignments to her team of CERs, and assisting them with issues as they arise.

“There is no off switch,” she says. “I field calls, text, and emails through the weekdays, evenings, and weekends. It’s a never-ending avalanche. Then all the legislative work thrown in.  The last year I’ve had very little down time—I’m exhausted!”

Most things that come across her desk are quite tragic or adversarial. She recalls a case of a woman whose car was T-boned by a defendant fleeing police in a stolen car.  

“She was pulling out of a grocery store after finishing her Thanksgiving shopping. She was going to meet her grandchild for the first time in a few days but she never got the chance,” she says. “I think of that family every Thanksgiving.”

Van Dam and Sandy Traskos launched the Michigan Association of Freelance Court Reporters (MAFCR) together.  

“Freelancers are spread throughout the state and have been mostly isolated from one another. It was a way to connect with fellow freelancers with our joint goal of raising the page rate,” Van Dam says. “It’s been a great experience getting to know court reporters throughout the state, sharing challenges in our jurisdictions, and just supporting each other however we can.”

As much as she enjoys the work, Van Dam notes the struggle for an increased page rate has been frustrating, especially this most recent go-around.  

“Since 1998 there have been over a dozen bills introduced and none have come to fruition,” she says. “After passing the House in November with a 104-6 vote, it has been almost five months and we still haven't been put on the Senate Judiciary Committee's agenda for a hearing. There is no public opposition to the bill and we have bipartisan support. It is common sense legislation for a basic governmental function. We're starting to feel our profession is no longer wanted. I'm not sure what their plan would be for appeal transcripts, but at this point after 38 years with no raise it's downright cruel. Taking advantage of a female-dominated profession should not be acceptable.”

Working and banding together with the Michigan Association of Professional Court Reporters (MAPCR) and the Michigan Electronic Court Reporters Association (MECRA) has been wonderful, she adds.  

“We've created a ‘Dream Team’ for legislative work that I believe has been pivotal in getting HB 5046 as far as it has. We meet at least once a month to share our efforts and come up with next steps to move forward.”

The group is planning an "Off the Record Rally" on April 16 at the Capitol.

“Together with MAPCR and MECRA we're hoping to bring some awareness to our struggle when the legislature comes back from their spring break,” she says. “We just want a hearing and a vote. If interested groups no longer want
us producing transcripts for Michigan courts they should say it loud and proud and oppose us at a hearing, or come to the table to work out a solution. The shadow stalling is unproductive for the judicial system as a whole.”

A life-long Ann Arborite, Van Dam admits that with the low page rate in Michigan—and the cold weather—she has been looking at which states have reciprocity with her licensure and coming up with plan B if HB 5046 doesn’t pass this time around.

It was in Ann Arbor that she was first introduced to the legal world by helping her father—an Ann Arbor police officer and accident reconstructionist and often an expert witness—put together his picture exhibits for court.

“This was before digital technology was widely used and I would glue the pictures in an exhibit binder and create the index,” she says.

She then landed a receptionist position at a law firm in Ann Arbor, after hearing of the job from a family friend.

“I learned so much at the firm and they always encouraged me to push myself further,” she says. “They taught me the ins and outs of the legal world, knowledge you can’t gain from a book or a class, for which I’m very grateful.”

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