Saturday, February 17, 2007


One of the fans of my blog (maybe the only one) suggested that I write about the Anna Nicole Smith case, and I responded that I could not conceive that there was anything left to say about it, but I was wrong. Justice Anthony Kennedy recently appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee making the repeated and wholly justified (and usually ignored) plea for greater compensation for federal judges. He was diverted from his topic by Senator Specter who again raised the spectre of televising Supreme Court arguments.

Over the years I have been ambivalent about the televising of court proceedings. I recognize the usual arguments about the potential effect upon witnesses, jurors and possibly judges, but I have seen studies that suggest that the presence of the courtroom camera is soon forgotten and its effect minimal. On the other hand, although not a regular watcher, I have caught glimpses of the TV judges---rude, impolite, snide and impatient, rendering decisions from the hip, and fear that the public has come to conflate them with our real judicial system.

I can certainly understand Senator Specter's position. Wouldn't it have been marvelous for the country to see and hear live the arguments in a case that decided who would be President of the United States? Justice Kennedy is properly concerned about the single sound bite at the end of a session, but doesn't that same risk exist with the print media? And at the trial level, the country should be able to observe the "Scooter" Libby trial, one that so clearly demonstrates the workings of the current administration. But I also thought that showing the O.J. Simpson trial was the right decision, so that when he was convicted, the African-American community would have had the opportunity to observe the fairness of the trial.

Televising court proceedings might also serve to deter the real judges who are rude, arrogant and impatient and at the same time demonstrate the respect and fairness usually displayed by most judges serving throughout this country. I have always believed that how the litigants and lawyers are treated is as important as the decision reached. Every case will have its losers. How they feel about their treatment during the process is the true test of the system.

And that brings me back to where I started---the Anna Nicole Smith case. All of the positives things that I thought televised court proceedings might bring to educate the public and engender respect for our judicial system were eradicated watching the Florida proceeding, which was to determine where Ms. Smith was to be buried. I don't doubt the Florida judge's good intentions, but I thought that I was watching a poker game in someone's basement. Lawyers were arguing directly with each other. Witnesses were testifying from a variety of chairs or standing. It was difficult to tell who were the witnesses and who were the lawyers. The judge, despite his oft repeated desire to maintain the dignity of the deceased and the proceeding, seem to do everything to accomplish the opposite while expanding the scope of the proceedings well beyond the issue presented and probably beyond his jurisdiction as well. I suspect to the public this case is already part fact and part fiction, but for the dignity of our court system, I would love to see that TV plug pulled.


duke said...

Court TV.
Would the camera have the effect desired on the judge who is charged with controlling the proceedings and maintaining decorum.
Many proponents see the camera as forcing the judge to behave in a more circumspect way ensuring that justice is done rather than just a conviction.
Would the outcome be as desired and needed or would the camera encourage even more abusive behavior? Based on the ratings of the current court TV programs, it appears that the most abusive and aspiring comic judges get the best ratings. Rather than identify with the defendant, the viewer most often will identify with the “winning” side. The authoritative side. Rarely realizing that the odds of being the defendant are much greater than being the judge.
Strong, clear and concise guidelines for courtroom behavior would have to be implemented. Detailed consequences would need to established. Supported by a record of prosecution and conviction for abusive judges. The prosecution of the judiciary and associated professionals would likewise need to be overhauled and held to the same sunshine as any other trial activity.

idlemind said...

My own positive impression of the court system has come from my experiences during jury duty. It saddens me to talk to friends and coworkers who endeavor to avoid jury duty, or failing that, avoid actually sitting on a jury. Part of this is luck -- I've not had some of the horrid experiences others have had waiting in the jury pool to be called into the courtroom, and I've actually been seated on five juries over the years. But the degree of professionalism generally displayed in the courtroom and the seriousness with which nearly all my jury peers treated their civic duty left a lasting positive impression.

I shudder to think of what my opinion of our courts would be if it were based on what I've seen on TV.

Perhaps cameras would have little influence on most trials. I see no reason to doubt research showing this. But it is the unusual cases that people will notice, and remember. And it is likely these cases where the immediate presence of the mass media is most likely to exert a perverting influence.

Mr. Turtle said...

I think a good compromise would be to tape the trials, but to delay the release of the tapes for a short period of time, say one month. Without the immediate feedback, there would be less incentive for the participants to grandstand.

Mary Whisner said...

Rest assured that wasn't the only fan of your blog. I'm one too! -- Mary Whisner (