Court reporter sees job being written into history

Klemmsen retires after 23 years as technology advances on profession

November 01, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Anna Klemmsen sat quietly through a routine docket of plea agreements and postponements in Howard County Circuit Court one recent morning. A few times, she looked up from her desk and scanned the courtroom, or looked at a lawyer reading facts into the record.

Mostly, though, she focused on a piece of paper, jotted notes -- and listened.

For 23 years, Klemmsen captured every word and mumble uttered in Howard County's courtrooms. She was a court reporter, one of a dying breed of stenographers and tape-recording monitors who turn spoken words into written ones.

Klemmsen retired Friday.

She has been a witness to murder cases, a brawl, even to police plotting raids and arrests in her small office. Yet, in a few decades, perhaps, Klemmsen's colleagues will be gone, too -- replaced by computers that translate speech into written words.

Already in Anne Arundel County, court reporters no longer sit in the courtroom. They monitor several courtrooms at once on a video monitor, a change officials say was made to cut costs.

But lawyers and judges in Howard County and elsewhere say court reporters like Klemmsen who sit in the courtroom perform a valuable job -- one that goes back centuries.

"I don't know how [courts] can do without them," said retired Judge J. Thomas Nissel, for whom Klemmsen worked in the 1980s. "They provide an invaluable service. Sometimes, three or four attorneys will be speaking at once. If you don't know who the [attorneys are], it can be difficult. I'd hate to see the practice discontinued."

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, for whom Klemmsen worked until her retirement, said she has done excellent work.

"The craft of the work was paramount and her attention to detail just phenomenal," Sweeney said. "She's an intelligent woman who viewed this work as highly important, one that demanded the highest craft in its doing."

Klemmsen was born in Baltimore 65 years ago. She graduated from the old Western High School in 1952 and worked as a legal secretary and then as a secretary and reporter for the Howard County zoning board. In August 1976, she took a job as Judge James McGill's court reporter.

Klemmsen remembers the old, safer days.

Those lawyers, she said with a smile, were always forgetting to lock the courthouse doors.

"I used to come down and work on the weekends, including on Sunday afternoons," she said with a laugh. "I can well remember coming in to the back door of the courthouse. There was a very large, long hallway. Sometimes, there would be kids from Ellicott City roller-skating back and forth down the hallway.

"So, I would round them up, throw them out and lock the doors. By the time I would leave later on, the doors would be unlocked again. I used to plead with them and leave notes in the library: Please lock door when leaving."

Klemmsen sat the other day for an interview at her perch in Courtroom 2. She wears large glasses and is dressed conservatively in a long, black skirt, black blouse and jacket. Her short hair is curled.

Other than a boisterous laugh, she could blend easily into a crowd -- or, more aptly, vanish in a nearly empty courtroom.

From the beginning, she said, people forgot she was listening, recording every word with a tape recorder. All the while, she took notes -- but never in shorthand -- to mark where lawyers were speaking on the tape.

Though her official job description entailed recording court proceedings, Klemmsen did much more. She prepared transcripts -- at $3.75 a page -- for lawyers and judges. She spent many nights, even holidays, typing transcripts from tape-recorded hearings for defense attorneys.

For years, Klemmsen used a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter for transcribing. But in the past decade, she has switched to a computer, which made her job much easier.

But it's that technological advance that could spell the end of her profession, as computers become better at translating spoken words into written form.

"If I had a daughter, I would not encourage her to go into this field," said Klemmsen, who never married.

Klemmsen will miss the people at the courthouse, but not the long hours of typing and certifying transcripts, she said.

Over time, the sensational cases have slowly receded from her memory. She remembers one case involving a mother putting a baby in an oven. She remembers a few murder trials. But, mostly, she recalls a few outlandish incidents.

In one case several years ago, the defendant tried to flee the courtroom after hearing a guilty verdict. A brawl ensued. The jury foreman and defense attorney tried to wrestle the defendant to the ground as the judge raced around the courtroom and ushered jurors out.

"I hit the panic button," she said. As the struggle intensified, Klemmsen rushed to the judge's bench and picked up a water pitcher. "If he ran up there, I was going to bash him with it," she said and laughed.

Years ago, Howard County police officers used her small office to discuss their cases, plan strategy and write out search warrants.

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