You might think that since cameras are banned in federal courtrooms, it would at least be relatively easy to obtain a daily transcript of a trial.
You would be wrong. Well, unless you’re made of money. In which case, get ready to spend a bunch of it.
To obtain transcripts from only the first three days of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial, you will need to fork over approximately $1,600, according to a price quoted by Marcia Patrisso, the court reporter responsible for the trial.
The anticipated price tag for the United States vs. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial transcript is mind-boggling.
Patrisso offered a “rough estimate’’ of the cost to obtain the transcript, based on the estimated length of the trial. Her estimate is based on the fastest transcript turnaround.
• Estimated 68 days
• Roughly 5.5 hours per day
• Approximately 225 transcript pages per day
• That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,300 pages.
• Total projected cost: $92,565
(If you need a visual, 15,300 pages of printer paper would stand approximately 4 feet 9 inches tall.)
The price could drop, depending on whether or not the transcripts are purchased by others. The first purchaser of a rush transcript pays a higher rate ($6.05 per page) than subsequent buyers ($1.20 per page).
By comparison, trial transcripts in Massachusetts state courts are slightly more affordable, with a per-page rate of $4.50 for a rush transcript.
The federal government isn’t collecting the money. Payments for transcripts go directly to the court reporters, though the per-page rates are set by the federal government.
The federal courts employ court reporters, but they are then paid on a two-tier system.
In Boston, federal court reporters’ base pay ranges from $81,131 to $98,198 annually. On top of that base salary paid by the federal government, court reporters receive direct payments from anyone wanting to get their hands on a federal court transcript. (Court reporters also pay for all their own software and equipment.)
The National Court Reporters Association, a group representing (and lobbying on behalf of) court reporters, encourages its members to push “daily copy’’ transcripts in an article on its website.
The NCRA makes the case that expensive transcripts can be “sold’’ to trial lawyers by making the case that having the transcript sooner (at a higher rate) is beneficial, not just for the court reporter, but for the attorney purchasing the transcript as well.
In other words, law firms can afford it because of the payout they’ll be getting at the end of a trial.
But not everyone who wants access to trial transcripts is a lawyer with deep pockets.
Say you’re a citizen who wants to follow the Tsarnaev trial and prefers not to rely on tweets or media reports. Or say you’re a reporter who wants to accurately quote a witness?
Brandon Gee, senior reporter for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said his media organization hasn’t sought any transcripts yet in the Tsarnaev trial, and that cost is “definitely a hurdle.’’
“Would absolutely take advantage of transcripts, were they more readily available. Frequently I want to get my hands on transcripts. Often I’m able to find it another way, for instance if it was attached as a motion in a case,’’ Gee said.
Brian Carver is an assistant professor at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the Free Law Project, a nonprofit trying to make court documents more accessible to the public.
“The public has a right to access the courts to ensure that they are functioning properly, especially in a criminal trial and especially in a high profile case like this one,’’ Carver said. “There should not be this many obstacles to the public or the press getting access to information about the trial. I think the court has the obligation to make transcripts more easily available and less expensive.’’
If you’re not made of money, but still want a daily view of the trial, your best bet is to wake up early enough to score one of the few spectator seats. You can spend the chilly mornings standing outside Moakley Courthouse in the cold pondering why you didn’t decide to become a court reporter.
It’s probably because you can’t type 225 words per minute.