CEDAR RAPIDS — Deb Shields remembers her first day as a court reporter in 1975. It was “baptism by fire” as she took down the record of a criminal trial involving a drunken driver.
“That's a long ways back to remember, but I know I was very nervous,” Shields said. “When asked to read back an answer regarding field sobriety tests, instead of reading back, I just asked the witness to repeat what he said.”
Shields said she was concerned about her misstep in front of the jury because she found out later the case was being appealed and she had to prepare a transcript. She was relieved to find all her notes were good.
“Even though it was a stressful first day, I knew I had made the right choice to become a court reporter,” she said.
Shields, 62, retires Thursday from the 6th Judicial District after 42 years with mixed emotions — she’s still “passionate” about the job and will miss her co-workers and the judge she has worked with for the last nine years, Judge Sean McPartland.
Over the four decades, Shields has worked with five judges. Her longest stint was with Judge William Eads for 24 years before he retired in 2000. Eads died in 2013.
She worked the shortest time — just five months — with Associate District Judge Anthony Scalaro, who lost a retention vote in 1978, following some controversy. According to news reports, he was once quoted as saying that “more lawyers should be told to shut up.” He also told the news media that drunken driving laws were too strict, which grew criticism following his own drunken driving arrest.
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Shields worked with McPartland since he was appointed to the bench in 2008. She said, though, she got along with all the judges. Judges and court reporters usually have a close working relationship and even travel together to other counties within the district for court cases. So it’s crucial they have a rapport, she pointed out.
Court reporters are not only “guardians of the record” — to transcribe court testimony and prepare transcripts — but they also serve as a judge’s administrative assistant to help prepare filings and orders.
McPartland said he didn’t understand how important court reporters were to the judges until he became a judge.
“I feel fortunate to work with someone with the same compatible work style — someone who has a desire to do things well,” McPartland said. “Deb is so loyal, not only to the judges over the years, but to the profession. She has been a great spokesperson in recruitment efforts for the career.
McPartland said it will be difficult to adjust to a new court reporter and that “Deb will not be easy to replace.”
Shields said her career always was interesting with the various judges and cases ranging from a murder trial where the father of the victim lunged at the accused during testimony to a lawsuit alleging mules were mistreated because they were being forced to dive into water at a fair.
“The caseload was really different years ago I remember the judges going home in the early afternoon because the docket wasn’t as busy as today,” she said. “Now, there are many times Judge McPartland is here past 5 p.m. Last week we didn’t leave Vinton (Tama County District Court) until 7:30 p.m.”
However, Shields noted it was changes in technology that kept her challenged over the years as she went from manual stenography machines to electric, then ones with disk drives and now paperless machines that are equipped with real-time reporting.
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Shields said as the technology changed, there was talk that court reporters wouldn’t be needed. But they embraced the technology to become more efficient. Providing the real-time reporting has been invaluable because a judge can review the testimony, which is simultaneously transcribed from shorthand, when making a ruling.
Some state courts, but not in Iowa, use audio recordings for some court proceedings. Shields points out that’s not error-free. A recording can’t be stopped if there’s an interfering noise in the building and the recordings still have to be transcribed, she added.
Shields has spent a lot of time going to middle schools to start early recruitment for the profession. The career pays well, and there are always opportunities in the court system and as a freelancer, she said.
Shields said she doesn’t know what’s next. She will take road trips with her husband, Ron, and spend more time with their three grandchildren. But she’s not opposed to doing some freelance work.
“The time has gone too fast,” Shields said.
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