Court Reporting Contest - 280 Words Per Minute!

by Jay, 6 years ago
0 0 A Court Reporting Contest. Who's the fastest typist in the land? If you're talking about the Land of Lincoln, it's arguably Melanie Humphrey-Sonntag, who has won the Illinois court reporters speed contest for the past three years. At last year's event she transcribed the contest's blazing dictation—averaging 245 words a minute—with a 99.193 percent accuracy. That's about 4 words a second. Or to put it another way, Humphrey-Sonntag types faster than your average auctioneer talks. Wednesday morning, the Wheaton resident will test her skills 2,000 miles away at the National Court Reporters Association convention in Anaheim. She'll be easy to spot amid the 25 or so other competitors: She's the one in pink tennis shoes, pink earrings, pink shorts—all for luck, of course. Humphrey-Sonntag will also wear a T-shirt that features a photo of her late husband, who died 15 years after the couple met at—where else?—the national speed reporting competition. Most people recognize court reporters from television: A man or (more often) a woman gallops hands across a keyboard with an emotionless expression. It's a cliche found in most courtroom dramas, although few know it's a profession perhaps older than the judges' or attorneys'. In fact, reporting or scribing is as old as written history itself, stretching back to antiquity. Examples of shorthand in English exist from as early as the 12th Century. Humphrey-Sonntag got involved just a bit later: 1977 to be exact. She was a happy-go-lucky high school student in Cheyenne, Wyo., when a man came recruiting from one of the court reporting schools in Denver. "I thought, 'I could do that,' " she said. "My high school offered machine shorthand as a course. I took that and did really well, so I knew I had an aptitude." At school she still had to practice and practice some more— the "secret" to typing so well and fast. "I learned a really good theory with lots of shortcuts," she said. Also, "I had nothing else in my brain; I think this is why it was easy for me," she added with her easy laugh. In 1990 she entered her first national speed contest—an annual event held during the conventions of the National Court Reporters Association or NCRA. It was there that she met Gary Sonntag, whose family has been involved in the local shorthand trade since the 1880s. "We were buddies for several years and saw each other at the convention—speed contestants would hang out with each other and things," she said. "Then in 1996 at the NCRA convention he and I fell in love." That device court reporters use is known as a stenograph machine, and its popularization and development in the 1920s are largely attributed to a Chicago inventor, M.H. Wright. It was not until 1952, though, that machine stenographers were allowed to join the annual speed contest, which was dominated by pen-and-paper shorthand stenographers. Those who work on a stenograph machine are usually associated with courtrooms, but about 70 percent of them work elsewhere, according to NCRA statistics. They transcribe everything from Web chats to television closed captions. Because current rules in many American courtrooms require a court reporter in addition to or instead of audio recording, the Bureau of Labor predicts the industry will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. In 1996, Melanie and Gary were freelance reporters, meaning they didn't have regular courtroom jobs, so Gary moved to Colorado, where Melanie lived. In 1998 they moved to the Chicago area, where they joined the family firm, Sonntag Reporting Service. For the next seven years, they worked together and enjoyed teaching shorthand and entering the annual national and state speed contests—Gary did better usually, but not by much. Often they would fill nights at home practicing side by side. It was, for a couple who had shorthand on their wedding groom's cake, the perfect pairing. Tragically March 5, 2005, while participating in a seminar with the Illinois Court Reporters Association, Gary died of a heart attack. Months later, that association named its speed contest after Gary. "I had new drive to really win," Humphrey-Sonntag said. She has won the contest all three years since. At the national contest, she has placed as high as third overall in 2005 and 2006, both after Gary passed away. Today, Humphrey-Sonntag hopes to qualify in all three dictation sections: literary, legal opinion and testimony. She'd also like to feel Gary "typing through her," a feeling she experienced in 2005. "It was great, not creepy—just beautiful." If he doesn't, though, she said she's not worried. "He's watching from above and helping me do well."