For The Record: Court Recording Monitor Devoted To Helping Others

Before the invention of the printing press, spanning the millennia from ancient Egypt until the Middle Ages, the taking of dictation and keeping of judicial and historical records was the honored and skilled occupation performed by scribes. Over the years the profession developed into today’s public servant known as the court recording monitor.

The evolution of the profession is not lost on Sabrina Agbede. Working as a Judicial Branch court monitor for the past 22 years, she is a self-proclaimed “present-day scribe.”

“We record the history of what happens in our court rooms,” said Agbede, who is a member of AFSCME Local 749 (Connecticut Judicial Employees). “We record the cases and take notes to make sure we get down what everyone is saying. And as requested, we type transcripts that are ordered.”

The records she produces help corroborate or clarify information to further argue cases, file appeals, and assist in long trials. While the days of taking handwritten notes may be long gone, Agbede remembers when she used to bring Sony cassette tapes and a notebook into the courtroom. Those tools have been replaced with digital recording software. Although this technology may be less labor intensive, it is not without its limitations. 

“There are challenges of making sure everyone is speaking clearly,” said Agbede. “As far as the transcription itself, there are also cultural barriers such as different accents or where English isn’t their first language, and people who may have a lesser advantage educationally as far as how they speak.”

Reliance on technology has become even more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic when court proceedings moved to a virtual setting. Court monitors now must compete with background noises such as trucks, dogs, and kids. The software that is used to help them isolate voices isn’t as useful since online meetings only have a single audio channel.

“Voices would cut each other out and there will be silence,” explained Agbede. “It was a drastic change for us post-COVID. We had to learn how to adapt quickly.”

Despite the adjustments Agbede had to overcome in transitioning to a new work environment, she seized the opportunity to be pushed out of her comfort zone. With no initial training on the new technology monitors were required to use, Agbede got to work exploring the ins and outs of it. She kept detailed notes on every glitch and mistake. Her main purpose for this painstaking tracking was simple: to prevent people who later began to use the new technology from repeating her errors, and if they did, to not worry much because there was a solution to them. This strong sense of altruism carries her through the roughest days.

“I started crying when I forgot my password coming back to the office,” said Agbede. “It made me think of how helpless I felt, which I never do about my job. I started to think about my co-workers, how much I missed that family that I grew into. I realized that even though I can’t get into my computer, I’m grateful for my understanding of the technology for my job so that I am able to help others.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but the burden is greater for women who are more likely to have lost jobs, be on the frontlines as essential workers, and take on greater responsibilities of childcare. Even before the challenges of the pandemic, for Connecticut’s court monitor workforce, which is roughly 95% comprised of women, having the support of a union has been monumental. It has afforded Agbede protections from discipline matters that can sometimes disproportionately impact women compared to their male Judicial Branch counterparts.

“My discipline file was in jeopardy because of absences,” explained Agbede. “I didn’t have any time on the books when I came back from my first pregnancy and I ended up in the ER. It happened again when my daughter got sick, and I got disciplined. The union was right there to assist me and both times they came through to help me resolve the issues in the extent where my job was not jeopardized in anyway.”

Local 749 has been active to ensure court monitors have job security. Three years ago they battled in the legislature to protect their jobs from outsourcing and privatization – a move that Agbede believes would be a “disservice to the public we serve.” Privatization of this sector of the Judicial Branch would target the predominantly female-occupied positions and cause a ripple effect for families. It would also create additional problems for the attorneys, customers, and judges who rely on the employees’ expertise and knowledge of transcription.

“The point from the recording to the transcription is a crucial point,” said Agbede. “And that is exactly what is lost when you privatize – that crucial point. The integrity and understanding of the records being kept would be impacted and delays would occur for people requesting their transcripts. In our community of monitors, we are in court every day and we help each other. A private company would not have the relationships we do.”

Despite everything Agbede has been through in her 22 years with the Judicial Branch: overcoming technological changes, fighting back against privatization, and supporting her co-workers through it all, she takes on every challenge with bright-eyed optimism. Even with so much heartache surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, she finds the silver linings like a treasure hunter.  

“One thing I noticed since the pandemic, is that there is more of an understanding of what people go through,” she said. “Everybody knows somebody who this pandemic has affected. There is a cleansing happening that is opening up the compassion in peoples’ hearts.”

When she is not using her attuned listening in the courtroom, she is lending her ear and holding space for others – an attribute she would probably describe as more of a gift rather than a skill.

“My job has enhanced the way I listen to what people in my life are going through,” she said. “Because what I hear about other people’s lives in court – I can’t do anything, I’m just there to record it all.”