Victoria County court reporters reflect on long careers

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Oct. 27, 2014 at 10:54 p.m.
Updated Oct. 28, 2014 at 12:14 a.m.

Yvett Shugart demonstrates how her stenograph machine works. The official court reporter can type 100 words per minute on a typewriter, but for the stenograph, the court reporter had to be certified to type 225 words per minute.

Yvett Shugart demonstrates how her stenograph machine works. The official court reporter can type 100 words per minute on a typewriter, but for the stenograph, the court reporter had to be certified to type 225 words per minute.   Angeli Wright for The Victoria Advocate

Yvett Shugart's name has been misspelled all her life.

That's why she never assumes when witnesses testify that she knows how to spell their names-let alone how to tell their story.

Shugart is one of seven court reporters in Victoria County. There are about 32,000 in the United States.

It is through their quick, unbiased fingers that what happens in cases involving anything from contracts to criminals is recorded to be scrutinized later.

You'll find them hunched over what's called a stenograph - a small machine that can be easily overlooked.

Shugart didn't notice it until a teacher during her high school freshman year introduced her to the profession.

"She said, 'Go home and watch Perry Mason. We'll talk tomorrow,'" Shugart said.

Perry Mason was a popular, black-and-white TV show that premiered in 1957. Actor Raymond Burr played a defense attorney who took on cases with insurmountable odds.

"When you watch Perry Mason, you're not paying any attention to anyone but Perry Mason. ... So, I went home and looked and said, 'You know, that would be pretty neat, especially if I could work with somebody like Perry Mason,' and I have," Shugart said smiling while sitting in the historic Victoria County Courthouse.

Shugart has been Judge Robert C. Cheshire's court reporter since 1989.

Becoming a court reporter isn't easy.

And although there's long been talk of how video may make them obsolete, Dale Guedry, the president of the Texas Court Reporters Association, pointed to a recent study that argues otherwise.

The U.S. will need an additional 5,500 court reporters by 2018 because of decreased graduation and increased retirement rates.

Guedry is a freelancer, which makes up 72 percent of the profession. They take depositions as well as close caption TV shows and sporting events.

Also, Texas, New York and California - the states employing the most court reporters in 2013 - are the states that use digital recording the least, according to the study.

Court reporters are "the indispensable link in the chain of justice," and technology can and has failed without a safeguard. New requirements that court reporters electronically file documents mean they must adapt though, Guedry said.

Dorinda Norrell, 51, court reporter for Judge Stephen Williams of the 135th District since 2003, is skeptical she'll be replaced by a tape recorder.

For two years in school, she listened to cassette tapes of speeches in varying speeds and rewired her brain to understand what appears to be jibberish spit out on 2 1/2-inch-wide, 8-inch-long stenograph paper.

A stenograph does not have a key for every letter of the alphabet.

One hits the left side of the stenograph for consonants at the beginning of a word, the right for consonants at the end of a word, and the center for vowels.

"I don't comprehend. I just write," Norrell said. "Sometimes, people will say afterward, 'Did you hear this?' or 'Did you hear that?' I'll say, 'No, I was listening, but I wasn't paying attention.' ... In school, they call that going on auto pilot, and that usually happens at 150 words per minute."

Norrell uses a stenograph with a digital face that backs up onto an SD card. It can predict what certain keystrokes mean.

Shugart prefers an older stenograph; her back up is paper and a floppy disc. It's a method that worked when she was 25 in the case of Lester Leroy Bowers.

Bowers, then a chemical salesman, killed four people in Grayson County in 1983 and stole a plane, even though he already put half the amount down to buy it. He's still on death row.

The method worked again for a Jackson County case with more than 60 defendants charged with smuggling drugs across the border. Jurors listened to Spanish recordings, so law enforcement helped her translate afterward.

She proofread tirelessly while raising two kids.

When Eli Garza becomes judge of the 377th District in January, Shugart, 56, might retire.

She doesn't know what it will be like not sitting in court, not watching what can sometimes resemble a soap opera.

Recently, she found her former teacher's address online. The woman was living in McKinney. Shugart thanked her with a dozen red roses.

"Court reporting is just much more interesting than anything else I could imagine, you know?" Shugart said as the afternoon sun lit the stained glass windows above her. "This courtroom is something out a Perry Mason show."


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