Court reporters are an interesting breed. I have always admired the skill and dedication that most of them bring to their very important job. Some of them, however, come up short in the responsibility department.
Dean of court reporters in Jefferson Parish, Martha Jane was irreverent and sarcastic, butreliable. She was quick to share with attorneys and court personnel during a recess, “Can you believe what that lying sack of feathers said? Do you believe the Judge bought any of it?” In her sixties, Martha Jane eschewed wearing fancy clothes or the services of a beauty shop. She showed up most of the time in runover sandals, frumpy hair and some loose-fitting garment decorated with garish flowers.
I once exclaimed under my breath to my young assistant, “My gosh, she has come to court in her nightgown and slippers.” Her chain smoking, even in the courtroom where the judge would allow it, caused her to appear older than her years. But Martha Jane was accurate and delivered her transcripts in a timely manner–which was about all you could ask of a good court reporter.
Tim was another matter. He did not study under Martha Jane, but convinced some court reporter school that he had gained sufficient proficiency to be let loose alone in a courtroom. When lawyers sometimes became verbose and shouted at one another in the heat of verbal battle, Tim would simply reply to the Judge, “No matter, Judge, I got every word of it.”
We all believed Tim to be a genius with the steno machine until we started calling for transcripts. Tim kept delaying production of the transcripts, citing the many hours Judge Hebee required him to be in court.
One day, without any notice to anybody, Tim failed to appear in court. Tim had fled the state and remains a fugitive, as far as I know. When Martha Jane attempted to decipher Tim’s steno tapes, she told Judge Hebee, “There is nothing but gibberish on his tapes. I told you that long, tall string bean didn’t have the sense God gave a billygoat.”
Charlie, Judge Cocke’s court reporter, chauffeur, confidant and procurer of all things necessary for the aging judge, recorded in long hand with pen and ink. A slick article, Charlie wore flashy, expensive clothes, lathered his coal black hair with oil and combed it straight back. He lavished expensive, strong cologne on himself, invisible clouds of which floated out into the courtroom. In one trial, after a particular heated exchange between all the attorneys and the judge, Charlie leaned back in his chair with his pipe clenched in his teeth, appearing undisturbed. I told my assistant “It really doesn’t matter. The transcript is going to read the way Judge Cocke wants it to read anyway.”
During a civil trial in Orleans Parish, I warned Evert, Judge Cassibry’s court reporter, “My client, Libby, has a gastric problem and may barf during testimony.” Evert, a fastidious fellow, one might even describe him as effete, did a fine job reporting for Judge Cassibry. He always sat close under the witness stand so he could hear and report accurately every word a witness said.
This being Libby’s first time in a big city, much less a courtroom, she became very nervous. The situation aggravated her stomach problems. She spoke softly so Evert moved even closer. Without warning and unpreventably on Libby’s part, she barfed all over Evert’s expensive stenograph machine. The Judge recessed and allowed both Libby and Evert time to regroup. After some time, a visibly shaken Evert returned to the courtroom visibly shaken to complete his duties.
Joe Cass was a seventy-six year old piece of work. The white mustached, silver-haired gentleman could pass for Walter Cronkite. The bottom half of the white mustache, was stained yellow from the from the Keep Moving Cigars Joe perpetually chewed on.
With his old-fashioned fountain pen, Joe had recorded trials for half a century. Judge John Boutall, a good Judge imbued with great empathy for those in need told me, “I have to keep the old man on. He has lost his wife and pension. This is his only source of income.”
Joe’s antiquated method of recording was slow. As he aged it became even slower. “Whoa, slow down,” he would shout to attorneys while frantically waving his left hand in the air. He would invariably do this at the most inopportune time, just when a witness was replying to an important question.
Joe liked to socialize and have a few beers with the boys after work. One of his favorite water holes was Ovella’s restaurant and bar. The good Italian family that owned Ovella’s served the coldest beer in frozen mugs, called schooners, and the best roast beef po-boys in the area.
When the loud mouth patron disturbed Joe’s enjoyment of cold beer and roast beef po-boy at Ovells’s one night, Joe felt compelled to punch the oaf in the face–unfortunately with his writing hand. This took Joe out of action in Boutall’s courtroom and for a while all the attorneys appreciated the benefit of a substitute. When Joe returned to work, he became even slower and interrupted more frequently, but the loyal Judge kept Joe on until the aged court reporter could draw retirement.
I still miss the courtroom and its wonderful characters, but not enough to leave Paradise.