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Strange Case of a Legal Oddity: She Puts Pen to Paper

Labor: South L.A. court reporter is the only one in California to shun a steno machine in favor of shorthand on a notepad.

September 03, 2002|LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Court reporter Marian DuVal likes to do things the old-fashioned way.

To start off, she's the only full-time stenographer in the state of California who still uses the ancient tools of her trade: pen and paper.

Her colleagues work with state-of-the-art machines and software that can instantly translate shorthand and beam it up to a judge's computer screen. DuVal swears by her black ballpoint pen and 6-by-9-inch notepad.

Sitting down recently in her tiny office in Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Los Angeles, DuVal ticked off a list of other things that she prefers to do the way her ancestors might have.

She said she grinds fresh chilies to make bean chili stew. And when she bakes a coconut cake, she takes a whole coconut and shreds its flesh.

She keeps in touch--handwritten letters, of course--with friends from her high school days in Chicago in the 1950s.

She even walks two miles to work every morning, after taking the train in from the San Fernando Valley.

"By today's standards, I guess I'm old-fashioned," DuVal said.

Philip Dube , a deputy public defender, said he thought he had entered a time warp when he first walked into DuVal's courtroom.

He was struck by the simple wooden chairs lined up to form the public seating area and the scarcity of electronic equipment. There was no microphone system, he noted.

"This courtroom looked like it was designed to be reminiscent of the Clarence Darrow era," Dube said. "I noticed that, in the middle of all this, there's just a woman sitting there, scribbling away."

Dube said he walked up to DuVal during a recess and asked what she was doing.

" 'In case you didn't know,' " Dube said she told him, " 'this is the way we used to do it before we had machines.' "

Over the years, colleagues and lawyers have quizzed her about why she doesn't switch to the machine.

"I tried it and I was just kind of bored with it," DuVal said of the stenograph.

"I was just stubborn," she said. "Writing's something I thought I was good at, and I wanted to continue."

She fell in love with the craft when she took a class in high school that taught Gregg shorthand, which uses lines, curves and dots to represent the letters of the alphabet.

The movement of DuVal's right hand is barely visible as she records a court proceeding.

She writes in narrow columns, a different one for each speaker, and holds her pen loosely so that her hand doesn't cramp.

"Somebody should be able to snatch the pen out of your hand," she said.

Today, only 1% of all court reporters in the United States are "pen writers" like DuVal, according to the National Court Reporters Assn.

DuVal has worked for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Scarlett for the last 14 years, and plans to continue until she retires. "It's like family, working with this judge and the clerk," DuVal said.

Scarlett said that what impresses him most about DuVal is how she can handle caseloads that other court reporters would complain about.

When DuVal was on vacation recently, the judge said the reporters who filled in suggested that he allow a shift change between the morning and afternoon calendars.

"You've never heard such complaining," said Scarlett, who presides over hearings in 40 to 50 cases a day.

Substitute reporters also have begged Scarlett, who speaks quickly and with a Southern drawl, to slow down while speaking from the bench, the judge said.

"Marian has never told me that I was talking too fast," Scarlett said. "She is unflappable. She is accurate. She does not get upset and she does not complain."

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