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Speed of sound: Sturgeon serves state 25 years as court reporter

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

(Photo)
Mark Sturgeon, a court reporter for district court, uses a stenotype to keep a real-time record of court proceedings on a daily basis. Sturgeon was honored this week for 25 years of work with the state of Iowa.
In the few seconds it takes to say six words, Mark Sturgeon's fingers do a rapid tap dance across the keys of his stenotype and pause, waiting to record the next spoken statement.

The thin column of paper sliding out of the stenotype reads "P H A EU R PBLG."

"That's short for 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,'" Sturgeon explains.

Recently honored for 25 years as a court reporter by the State of Iowa, Sturgeon is fluent in a language that only a handful of people can read -- stenography.

His interest started in his youth.

"I was one of the first people I knew that could type. I loved typing since I was old enough to get up to the typewriter," the Le Mars man said.

He went to school in Sioux Falls, S.D., to become a stenographer after his father suggested it as a possible career and Sturgeon watched a court reporter at work.

Studying to use a stenotype or shorthand machine and work as a court reporter is intensive, and it involves learning what is almost like a separate phonetic language. In fact, when Sturgeon was in school, the success rate of students was about 20 percent.

The shorthand keyboard has 22 keys, compared to more than 100 on a regular computer keyboard.

To make up for the letters that aren't on the steno keyboard, court reporters spell phonetically, so the "c" sound in "car" would be typed "k," since there's no "c" on the stenograph. The word "court" may be typed "kort."

Other times, court reporters use shortened versions of words and combinations of letters to signify words, as in Sturgeon's abbreviation of "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury."

"Everybody has a little different style, although we all have things in common," Sturgeon said.

In all this, court reporters must type at rates of hundreds of words per minute to keep up with with people's speech.

The shorthand record court reporters type can be transcribed into a full English version if needed for review.

Along with quick fingers, the court reporting job also requires a high level of professionalism.

"A court reporter is supposed to not show emotion. We're the uninterested, unbiased party," Sturgeon said. "There are times it's hard not to laugh; there are times it's hard not to cry. You have to put that aside and do your job. They system will do what it does and you can't worry about it."

Plymouth County and Iowa have a great judicial system, Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon finished his schooling in two years and, at the age of 20, worked for one year as a freelance stenotype reporter under Bob Cassel, who owned Cassel Court Reporting in Le Mars.

Then -- 25 years ago -- Sturgeon was hired by the state of Iowa as a district court reporter for Judge Edwin Mitchell, now retired.

In 1993, Sturgeon started as Judge Robert Dull's court reporter, working with him to the present day in the courts of Plymouth, Sioux and Lyon counties.

"I couldn't imagine doing the job without him," Dull said. "He's very talented."

When judicial system cuts eliminated a court attendant position, court reporters helped cover that work, Sturgeon said.

Dull said Sturgeon is integral to the day-in, day-out operations of the court.

"He acts as the receptionist, a bailiff," Dull said. "Anything that needs to be done, he does."

Sturgeon assists the clerk's office in Plymouth and Lyon counties, Dull said.

In fact, Sturgeon was one of the main people who worked to get the paperless court document system, EDMS, up and running in Plymouth County, Dull added.

"He's very oriented toward the people that come before the court. He'll do anything for everybody. He even went so far as to take a course in Spanish so he could help talk to some of the Hispanic people that come in."

Sturgeon also makes himself available to help Judge Jeffrey Neary as needed.

"Mark is pretty indispensable," Neary said. "We rely on him a lot, and he's fun to work with."

In 25 years as a district court reporter, Sturgeon said he's seen the tools of the trade evolve.

"Court reporters in general have had to adapt to the technology, otherwise (electronic) recorders could replace us," Sturgeon said.

For example, at the same time as he's typing the shorthand record, he's also connected to his laptop computer, which is translating his shorthand into a real-time English record, which is easily readable.

Before this, Sturgeon would take the shorthand records, which looked more like alphabet soup on a thin strip of paper, and spend hours at night and on weekends transcribing them into documents in English.

After those thousands of hours of typing, Sturgeon was quite fast at his work -- even winning a typing contest in the mid-1980s.

"I beat all the entries -- I was the only guy that entered," he said. "I won all kinds of prizes, but it was only because of all the practice time I had."

Sturgeon's work brings him into all different types of court hearings. He said some are interesting, some not, but among his favorite are adoption hearings.

On National Adoption Day, Nov. 19, Sturgeon will be volunteering his court reporting services to report adoptions in Sioux City.

"That's one of the best hearings you'll do," he said. "These little kids come all dressed up, and their lives are taking a turn for the better. The parents and the grandparents are there and it's just fun."

Sturgeon lives in Le Mars with his wife, Brenda. They have two daughters in Le Mars as well.

In his free time, Sturgeon enjoys bicycling and is a member of the Plymouth County Cyclists Club, hunting, running and spending time with his family -- including three granddaughters.

"I was just clearing my back hill getting ready for some sledding weather," he said with a grin.

This week, judges Dull and Neary presented Sturgeon with a certificate for 25 years of work with the state of Iowa.

"It's a great job," Sturgeon said. "I love it."


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I am very proud that you are highly respected in this community. It seems to run in the family and that is a trait that I would like to hope, others will think of me someday. Congratulations Dad!

-- Posted by Amanda83 on Thu, Oct 27, 2011, at 8:21 AM

Congrats Mark!

-- Posted by Michael Lamb on Fri, Oct 28, 2011, at 8:39 PM


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