Court adjourns for longtime pro
Protector of the record, last court reporter ends his 21-year career
From divorce cases to murder trials, there’s not a word uttered in open court that Dave Orton hasn’t snatched up and written down.
For the past 21 years in the courtrooms of Mesa County District Court Judge Thomas Deister and his predecessor, Judge Nick Massaro, Orton has maintained a silent presence next to the witness stand.
For years Orton, 53, has been the only remaining court reporter in the 21st Judicial District. His departure this month marks the end of the era in the district for court reporters.
As courtroom discussion proceeds, Orton types onto his portable stenography machine, which consists of 15 unmarked keys on a knee-high device half the size of a computer keyboard. The shorthand is translated into English and appears in real time, scrolling along computers used by attorneys and the judge.
“It’s a lot like playing the piano,” Orton said on his last day, Christmas Eve. “I call it protecting the record.”
Other court reporters in the district’s history have since retired and those positions were replaced by digital recording, mainly to save on the salaried positions, court officials said.
Court clerks now listen to the digital recordings on a three- second delay during proceedings to ensure everyone’s voice in the courtroom is being picked up. Clerks simultaneously can perform other duties such as updating cases as defendants appear in court. If court transcripts are requested, they are outsourced to freelancers.
Orton has recorded thousands of cases that cover the spectrum of district court.
His favorite cases have been adoptions, “when everybody walks out smiling,” he said. Often, those adoption hearings are preceded by hearings to terminate paternal rights, which are usually sad affairs. A trial against Brandon Moore, a man who was convicted of child abuse resulting in death of his 2-year-old stepson, was one of the more emotionally taxing cases, Orton said.
“You do get affected,” he said. “The whole thing was such a sad situation. That got to me how sad it was for the family and the victim’s family.”
Court reporting for Orton became an automatic function, long ago having memorized the keys. Each keystroke generally translates into a word. He often looked directly at witnesses to better hear statements. Orton wonders if that tactic made witnesses nervous. Orton said he’s enjoyed listening and learning from experts who testify on a range of topics including crime analysis and medical examinations.
In 2002, he earned the distinction of outstanding judicial district employee of the year among court reporters in districts throughout the state.
“It’s been a good job,” he said. “I’ve just been happy here.”
Orton worked at the Roadside Coal Mine off Interstate 70 near Palisade until the operation shut down in 1986. He learned of court reporting from a friend, and Orton went on to earn a two-year degree at a Denver school.
Court reporters over the years in the 21st Judicial District used a variety of techniques, including one reporter who used a face mask to repeat the words spoken in court into a device and transcribed the documents, Court Administrator Judy Vanderleest said. Another court reporter took shorthand notes with pen and paper.
As per policy, Orton purchased and is responsible for his own equipment. He paid $5,000 for his stenography machine at the start of his career and has it serviced every year. Thankfully, it has never broken down in court.
“It’s like a good old car,” Orton said, patting its side.
Judge Deister said he’s appreciated having Orton as a court reporter and will probably miss the immediacy of seeing what’s said in court scroll on his computer. It often helps judges and attorneys remember what questions were last asked, he said.
“It’s almost an artform; it’s almost magical,” Deister said. “He gets down everything everyone says all the time. He’s never produced a late transcript. He’s been a true delight to work with.”
Orton said he’ll stay busy enough in retirement working freelance taking depositions for attorneys or law enforcement. Court reporting as a job skill is not a dead art. Reporters do television captioning and can work transcribing other documents, at least until voice recognition software advances to pick up all of the nuances of language, Orton said.
Being in the courtroom like a fly on the wall has been the most enjoyable.
“I’m not the one making decisions,” Orton said. “I’m the one person who doesn’t care what happens. I’m totally neutral, yet I’m still involved in it.”