Saturday, January 05, 2002

Lights, Cameras, Action

I've heard it a lot of times. People confessing that their knowledge of the law comes from television drama and comedy series; "Everything I know about the law, I've learned from Night Court and Law and Order." Many of our courtroom proceedings are public, and people can sit in the courtrooms, and watch almost from beginning to end. Still, most of us learn about the law from TV.

Lately, words about using cameras, and allowing media coverage of court cases have been making a buzz in judicial chambers, and in meetings between the bench and bar in Delaware. A weighing and balancing of the good and the bad aspects of live courtroom coverage, playing in front of the public, is healthy for our small State. It shows that decision-makers are considering the way government functions, and the way that the public views the justice system and the judicial branch of government.

But the thought of putting cameras in the courtroom, and making a case available to a wide audience makes many nervous. There are a good number of arguments for and against the use of cameras in the courthouse. There’s also a lengthy history of media coverage, and of potential abuse.

The first really big case in the United States involving the distraction that the media can cause was the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann. The trial, involving the kidnapping and murder of the son of Charles Lindbergh, was one of the highest profile criminal cases ever reflected in a news photographer’s camera lens. The American Bar Association recommended the banning of cameras from courtrooms in the wake of that case, which had hundreds of reporters and photographers competing with each other to cover it.

Cameras did make a comeback, and the Supreme Court addressed their use in a case called Estes v. Texas, which saw a conviction overturned because the courtroom became the site of an uncontrolled media field day. The court did mention that their holding was limited to the case at hand, and not an outright ban of cameras in courtrooms.

Since then, a number of states have allowed the use of cameras for judicial proceedings. The Florida Bar Online has a very nice summary of the use of cameras in Florida, called, “Cameras in the Courtroom.” The article includes a history of the use of electronic media in State and Federal Courts, and the steps that Florida has taken to lessen the potential impact that recording might have on a proceeding.

The debate of the use of cameras in courtrooms isn’t limited to Delaware. Federal Courts are facing pressure to allow cases involving the terrorist attack of September 11th to be televised. On January 10, 2002, Representatives from Court TV will be in court to make an argument to allow them to televise the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is the first person indicted in the attacks. The Senate has already acted to allow for extensive closed-circuit coverage of the case in cities across the United States, and in forums like Madison Square Garden. Such coverage is similar to the type of coverage used in the Oklahoma City Bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The prosecutors’ recommendations in that case give some insight into the government's views concerning the rights of the victims in being able to watch the proceedings.

Can cameras distract the participants in a case? Will they behave in manners which negatively impact the rights of the people being represented? Does the public have a right to know what goes on in a courtroom? Can televised court proceedings lose their impact if they take on the appearance of entertainment? Should our citizens’ knowledge of the justice system come from reruns of Night Court?
- William Slawski