Judge Kozinski, TV, And Reality: Something Is Out Of Focus

Watching another lawyer try a case is a lot like watching ice melt: I know something is happening, but it I just can't see it. Even when I watch lawyers I admire, it's hard to enthuse about the show. Trial, a multi-dimensional game of chess to the participants, is not exactly riveting. Except on film.

We can't seem to get enough of courtroom dramas, or of crime shows. But fiction is not the new reality. A script writer's freedom from the rules of evidence or the adversary process can yield great entertainment. Real life just isn't that entertaining.

So why are the federal courts willing to experiment with cameras in the courtroom?

Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, has announced that his circuit will “experiment” with cameras in Court. He wants "to help us find the right balance between the public’s right to access to the courts and the parties’ right to a fair and dignified proceeding.”

C'mon Alex, call your make up artist and tell her to stay home. This is a stupid idea. Casting pearls before swine doesn't make swine glamorous.

Court TV was supposed to edify us all about what went on in the courts. What we ended up with was 'round-the-clock shlock. Producers looked around for trials with sex appeal. Cameras were placed in these courtrooms, and then editors clipped the "sexier" moments for broadcast. To add color, lawyers were recruited as talking heads to "interpret" the significance of what was shown on the screen. The result was hardly edification; indeed, all we succeeded in doing was creating a few new talking heads, who copped just the right attitude on screen: Nancy Grace gracelessly rages about crime; Catherine Crier decries the role of lawyers. And the public, that vast entity of folks with some inchoate right to know, knows about as much as it knew before the klieg light's flashed -- zip.

I played at being a talking head for a while. Somehow, I made the Rolodex of a Court TV producer. Here's how the game worked. The phone would ring some morning. Was I free that evening? Great! Over the facsimile would come someone's narrative about what a case was about. A limousine would arrive. I'd read the facsimile on the drive to Manhattan. Once we arrived at the studio, I'd get a little make up. (I needed a lot.) Into the studio, chatter, blather and wisecrack. Then back to the limo. I knew the game was a fraud when I once saw a prosecutor from a low-level criminal court in Connecticut with little trial experience use family connections to make it big as a commentator. From time to time, she appears on national television offering opinions. I am green with envy, of course. She gets paid for that?

Cameras in the courtroom are a mistake. No one will broadcast the proceedings in their entirety, gavel to gavel. Editors will pick and choose what appeals. That will usually be something dramatic. As every experienced litigator knows, drama is usually more smoke than fire. Why would we want to trivialize what goes on in the courts by transforming court proceedings into entertainment?

Connecticut recently amended its rules to permit limited access to the courts by television. All that this has resulted in is delayed court proceedings. A client arrested in a so-called "high profile" case can expect delays in the court proceedings while the cameraman gets set up. Then everyone stands around like a debutante at the prom, waiting for the cameraman to signal he is ready. Then its lights, camera, action and the arraignment is on. All the television station really wants is a picture of the accused. The public learns nothing. We merely titillate.

“I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of other people’s legal problems,” Justice Antonin Justice Scalia once said. He's right.

Judge Kozinski told The New York Times that the Ninth Circuit move is still an experiment. “It’s a little bit of an uphill battle” to get courts to adopt technology, he said, adding: “We all have to be much more tech savvy than we really ever were, or particularly wanted to be. It’s just the nature of life in the 21st century.”

Permitting television cameras in the courtroom merely trivializes the proceedings. If Judge Kozinski thinks otherwise, he's out of touch with reality.

Comments: (4)

  • There's plenty to chew on here, as is usual with N...
    There's plenty to chew on here, as is usual with Norm's essays. First off, it's 'cameras', not 'television cameras' (with lights). Lights and makeup are no longer needed or used in actual filming.
    Secondly, if Antonin Scalia says something, I automatically go the other way before he has finished speaking. This man has said some of the dumbest things I have ever heard coming from any member of the 'bar'. This bloviating buffoon is the MOST disagreeable justice in the history of the S.C. Court, and every bit the showman himself. How can anyone take him seriously? I'll take Ruth Bader any day.
    Finally, as a matter of principle, I say and have posted, "Let the light of day shine into every corner of the courtroom." That is the very best check that we the public--not necessarily the players--have against judicial misconduct, error and malfeasance. I guarantee you, if the cameras had been rolling at GA 23 in Nov. 2002, the judge would not have said some the things she said in open court. If the cameras had been rolling, she may not have ruled against me as often as she did, and the outcome may have been different. Advantage me, the Defendant in a totally bogus criminal proceeding in the corrupt State of CT.
    I can also assure you that not everything she said is 'preserved' in the transcript which I now possess (500 pages). Some of the language was 'cleaned-up' by the stenographer. Some of it was omitted entirely because the stenographer lady instinctively knew that to transcribe the judge's words verbatim would provide proof of improper and inappropriate 'judicial demeanor'. For example, "Shut up!" became, "Would Mr. Doriss now be quiet?" (The judge is named by my in a comment below on another story.)
    Finally, I attended the entire five-week trial of Christopher McCowen, Barnstable County, 2006. I joined the 'press corps' and hobnobbed with everybody, including Court TV's own Beth Karas. Here was my usual routine: I arrived at the courthouse before nine 0'clock and attended the morning sessions in person. During the lunch break, I drove home (nearby), had a quick lunch and turned on Court TV. I would watch the afternoon session on cable, drink a beer, take notes and blog actively. Now that's my idea of 'multi-tasking'!
    The afternoon sessions were better for me because the cameras in the courtroom were strategically placed so as to grab the best shots of the participants, including the judge of course. The several microphones were placed so that the listener could hear everything without missing a beat. When actually in the courtroom, physically, I found myself staring at the backs of peoples' heads and not being able to hear them distinctly because they were speaking toward the judge and jury, and away from the public audience. With no PA system in use, the acoustics were frustratingly poor, and I missed a lot of dialogue.
    Posted on January 4, 2010 at 5:29 am by William Doriss
  • I have my complaints with Court TV, and I have for...
    I have my complaints with Court TV, and I have forwarded them. I accused them of producing 'info-tainment',...not a nice word or a compliment. I understand that some off-site commentators are little more than actors and 'talking heads'. On the other hand, some seasoned defense attorney guests and other experts were exceptionally good, and informative. So you pick and choose your winners. I'm smart enough to do that without having someone else do it for me.
    Christopher McCowen was found guilty of all three counts, including capital murder and rape. The case received nationwide attention. I and others blogged heavily in his defense. I believe Robert George, for the defense, performed yeoman's service, the very best that money could buy. Paid-for by the Commonwealth, I believe.
    Judge Gary A. Nickerson, I believe, ran interference for the prosecution. He ruled against the defense at every opportunity and improperly interfered with jury deliberations when they became deadlocked. Once again, the convictions were 'engineered' by the Court itself in co-conspiracy with the prosecution. The jury of twelve failed to perform its duties as charged by the Commonwealth.
    I believe McCowen is an innocent man. The police investigation was completely botched. The Commonwealth employed a 'false confession' which the judge incorrectly admitted into evidence. If McCowen is not innocent, he was most certainly falsely charged, falsely tried, and falsely convicted. His appeals are pending.
    It does not look good, for the simple reason that Mass. appellate courts, like most, rubber-stamps the trial court unless the errors are egregious. My letter to the Cape Cod Times expressing these opinions was published Jan. 16 '08.
    I strongly disagree with you on your opinions regarding cameras in the courtroom, Norm. P.S., my real crimes in CT were having the chutzpah to refuse the plea-bargain, fight for my innocence and force the State into a full-blown jury trial over trivial events and incidents of no public safety consequence whatsoever--if anybody had just bothered to perform a proper investigation. The State NEEDS prisoners in order for an unending cadre of officials to justify their pathetic careers and overly generous salaries.
    Consequently, the State punished me for standing up for my 'rights' and proclaiming my 'innocence'. You cannot make this stuff up. William Doriss says, Cameras in the Courtroom, Full-Speed Ahead! Available to be downloaded and watched any time by the public for free. And you can forget about the makeup!?!
    Posted on January 4, 2010 at 5:36 am by William Doriss
  • On the one hand, the idea of putting cameras in th...
    On the one hand, the idea of putting cameras in the courtroom makes a lot of sense. Court proceedings are public, and that shouldn't be arbitrarily limited by the size of the room. On the other hand, the actual practice of putting cameras in the courtroom has been kind of a crazy experience for all the reasons you say.
    Perhaps the solution is to put cameras in the courtroom but not publish the video until after the trial concludes. Everybody can now see the trial if they're interested---and all the details are preserved for the record---but it won't be so useful to the talking heads.
    Posted on January 4, 2010 at 6:10 am by Windypundit
  • As a pro se plaintiff (with a Master's degree in p...
    As a pro se plaintiff (with a Master's degree in philosophy and other relevant background and tools) conducting civil cases against lawyers who committed criminal acts against me who has witnessed collusion in the courtroom (including cooperation with judges at the Bridgeport Superior Court on Main Street) regarding perjury, forgery, and tampering with witnesses and evidence and coming later upon incidents of tampering with the transcript of one case, I can only strongly recommend cameras in the court, as a complement and in some cases a supplement for the recorded transcript. Pattis--as most others including Scalia--cautions against this on the grounds that legal proceedings would be entertainment. They're right if this is allowed. But video of court proceedings should be as boring as C-Span. Nonetheless, part of the available record. As for video holding things up, at many times in my cases, everyone had to wait for the court reporter. The criminal and corrupt lawyers and judges I have been exposing in ongoing citizen investigative reporting over the years would never have tried to pull what they did with cameras present.
    Posted on January 5, 2010 at 2:51 am by Henry Berry

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